If revolutions inevitably eat their own, the Cuban revolution wasted little time before taking a big bite out of its gay population. In the mid-'60s, many gays were hauled off to concentration camps, among them Reinaldo Arenas, who had the unfortunate distinction of being both gay and a writer. Over the course of his rather short life--he committed suicide in New York City at age 47--Arenas managed to amass an international reputation as a poet and novelist while publishing next to nothing in Cuba itself. This is tragically ironic when you consider that Arenas' work was, literally and figuratively, grounded in his native soil. One of his earliest memories was of eating dirt. And as we learn in Before Night Falls, a movie based on Arenas' 1993 memoir, he was more or less forced to eat dirt his whole life. Directed by Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls is entranced with the lush greens of the Cuban countryside, the bright white light of the sun and the glistening brown skin of people who seem born to enjoy themselves. Yet the movie doesn't shy away from the degradations Arenas had to endure--the arrests, the interrogations, the imprisonments, the suicide attempts, all because he insisted on his own meaning for the phrase "Cuba Libre." Spain's Javier Bardem, who's received an Oscar nomination, gives a performance that's both silky and determined. Bardem has sad eyes and a slight slump to his shoulders, and you start to wonder whether he's ferocious enough to play Arenas. But there's more than one kind of ferocity in this world. Arenas, who claimed to have had sex with 5,000 men by the time he was 25, was ferociously sensual.
Schnabel, who co-wrote the script, leaves out all but a few of those sexual encounters, but he can hardly be said to have stinted on sensuality. Before Night Falls is full of beautiful men and their beautiful bodies, so much so that we recoil when an older writer issues a warning to Arenas regarding Castro's Cuba: "Beauty is the enemy." And speaking of beauty, Johnny Depp has a jaw-dropping cameo as Bon Bon, a transvestite who smuggles Arenas' manuscripts out of prison via that place in the human body where the sun don't shine. When did this actor develop such balls-to-the-walls courage? And is it not a fitting tribute to a man who, no matter what was thrown at him, found a way to both get on with his life and get it all down on paper? "Why do you write?" someone asks Arenas at one point. His one-word answer: "Revenge."