Though far from perfect, Before Night Falls is an energetic portrait of a great artist, who was constantly at odds with his home country, because his means of expression and as a homosexual. Much like Schnabel’s more well-known film, Before Night Falls explores the power of the mind, and how imagination sets us free. I almost think that the development of this idea is far richer here, bringing political and social context to the idea. Though often times, political movements, especially extremist ones like fascism or communism utilize artists and intellectuals to spread their message, once they take power, they’re usually the first to go. The reason for this, as the film suggests, is that these systems thrive on controlling every aspect of their people, and with artists and intellectuals, even if they support your system you cannot control their minds or imagination, and this makes creativity inately subversive.
Schnabel has a great sense of this, and his film is far from a literal bio-pic. Though not quite as subjection as something like I’m Not There, the film utilizes fantasy, flashback and archival footage to bring richness to Reinaldo Arenas words and life. I especially liked the returns to childhood, especially as in the last days of his life Arenas muses that even as an adult he always had the spirit of a child. Those moments linger, and the impression of childhood is still clear. Within the film, those moments are elusive to the viewer, except as a vivid portrayal of Arenas mentality and world view. Even in his most dangerous and complicated situations, he can’t help drifting back to those times. Unlike most films that utilize this technique, it’s not a return to something more simple, but something just as complex as adulthood. He struggles to understand these key moments of his childhood, not only piecing together people and events, but his seemingly contradictory feelings and emotions relating to his memories.