Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Seeing Before Night Falls (2000) again for the first time in 8 years, I am struck by how timely it still is. With a new administration in the White House far more open in its foreign policy, Cuba is one country that is benefiting from the America's reengagement in the world of diplomacy. The Congressional Black Caucus even sent a few representatives this past week to sniff out its new leader, Raul Castro, and investigate if there is enough cause to consider building bridges between the U.S. and Cuba. As the son of Cuban immigrants myself, I've always had a somewhat more complicated view of the internal realities in Cuba. Director Julian Schnabel captures my own feelings on the subject and presents a story that is somehow both realistic and surreal, political and poetic; a story of a small, beautiful island on the decline under the weight of corruption, yet fiercely surviving because of the powerful will of its creatively spirited people. Writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) is a homosexual who comes of age at the same time as Fidel Castro's revolution comes to fruition. While Arenas at first supports the revolution because of the change it seems to bring, he quickly comes to realize that the new regime is far more oppressive than he first thought. Dissent is not welcome. And the creative community is targeted for its position in society, ideally suited in fomenting dissent among Cuba's free-spirited population. Homosexuals are also targeted for "rehabilitation", placing Arenas in the sights of the island's oppressors. We follow Arenas through his travails in Cuba's prison system, and his eventual exile from the island, ending up in New York where he lives in poverty until his death of AIDS. But Arena's will is never diminished by his troubles, and his story's arc serves as a metaphor for that of Cuba itself. Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), a renowned painter himself, has always specialized in telling the story of artists facing personal adversity, whether real (Basquiat) or imagined (Lou Reed's Berlin). This frees him to use creative license in depicting the story of Before Night Falls. For instance, Arenas isn't always the most reliable narrator. His romantic childhood as told to an interviewer late in the film flies in the face of the impoverished childhood we observed earlier in the movie. We begin to realize that Arenas' art - and in fact, Cuba's - thrives as a result of its existence under oppression. For whether its the poverty that ruled the island before the revolution, or the regime that ruled after, Arenas and his fellow Cubans used the resulting climate as an incentive to create transcendent paintings, literature, music and dance. There are details I relate to, having family that experienced the 1959 Revolution firsthand. In an early scene on the island, Arenas seems to be eating hard-boiled eggs and broccoli because that is all he can afford. We later see him eating the same in New York, where he has freedom of choice, but has perhaps become institutionalized into eating this after his years under Castro. Arenas is often being observed by shadowy government informants, a fact of life in Cuba. Once in New York, he extols the virtues of baby food by pointing out how simple it is to eat for a writer since it can be eaten right out of the jar, a tall tale used to cover up his embarrassment that it is also a cheap source of nutrition for the penniless author. Schnabel shows us how the Cuban people have survived through times of great political repression by continuing to indulge their creative spirit. And though there are many opposed to lifting America's economic embargo against Cuba, I believe that once it is lifted it will allow a subtle shift to occur. No longer will the United States be seen as aiding in the punishment of Cuba's economically depressed people. It will be seen as contributing to the dialogue among its artistic community, as democracy begins its slow invasion into the island and pushes new sources of ideas to the forefront of the Cuban consciousness. Only then will the Cuban people have a chance to escape the oppression of their daily lives that they have grown accustomed to. This post was first published at Film for the Soul for its continuing series on the best movies of the 2000s, Counting Down the Zeroes, on 4/14/09.