Before Night Falls
dir. Julian Schnabel
Opens Fri Feb 2 at Broadway Market.

Julian Schnabel--painter of exorbitantly priced broken plates, epicenter of the '80s art hysteria--is now bent on a different goal. In his new role as filmmaker, Schnabel seems intent on showing us the artistic consciousness, the perils and consequences as well as the giddy rewards of life in the right brain.

Most everyone I know hated his 1996 film, Basquiat, but I didn't. I liked the surreal invocation of the painter's world. I liked Schnabel's portrayal of 1980s New York, corrupt and shallow and still offering Jean-Michel Basquiat chance after chance that he continually--and to his own surprise, I think--squandered. And mostly I liked Jeffrey Wright's Basquiat, with his spacy, loony stare, his not-quite-thereness that made the events of his life roll off him like water through his fingers.

But Schnabel has abandoned that expressionistic style; probably he was listening to those other critics, since he didn't ask me. His new film, Before Night Falls, the life story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, is utterly straightforward, despite the hallucinatory, incantatory style of Arenas' writing. (Although there's a nod to his style at the film's beginning, in the Oriente province of Cuba--exactly the kind of lush and slightly sinister place that Gabriel García Márquez, the über--magical realist, would approve of.)

Arenas was a prolific writer, publishing 11 novels, plus poetry, short prose, and his memoir (from which the movie is adapted). After his first novel, both Arenas--a proud and, by his own account, promiscuous homosexual--and his works were deemed dangerous by Cuba's repressive regime; his later writing was smuggled out of the country by various friends. The map of his life is one of alternating pleasure and oppression, the one fueling the other, up until his death in New York in 1990 of AIDS.

The story has elements that should make the film good: a solid memoir, the jazzy, snazzy, Ricky Ricardo Havana of the '40s and '50s, lots of hunky Latino men, and a political story to keep things from deteriorating into sheer hedonism. But Before Night Falls is so... boring. The episodes of seduction and crackdown follow each other, over and over, building toward nothing. Arenas goes to prison twice; he escapes, he recants, and by the time he squeaks out of the country in the Mariel Harbor boat lift of 1980 (when Castro let all the criminals and gays out--you can almost hear the dictator thinking "phew!"), it's hard to believe he's not going to be brought back in a Coast Guard launch. It's evidence enough that an interesting life doesn't necessarily make an interesting life story, that maybe some of Schnabel's expressionism could have helped out here.

And all these things combine somehow to flatten Arenas' writing--read in voice-over by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who plays the adult Arenas--making it trite rather than amplifying it or giving it flesh. He reads a terrible poem during a long shot of a drive through the city; later, when I read the poem in print, I found a staccato elegance to Arenas' words, a rhythm and clarity that the film had missed. And that, my friends, should be a punishable crime. Basquiat's paintings were still Basquiat's, no matter how much you hated the film, but Arenas is made to sound like a hack poet.

Bardem does his damnedest to hold the thing together, and he almost succeeds. He looks like a pop-eyed Latino Robert Downey Jr., with a noble nose and a prissy smile that is very engaging. He floats through the film with a dreamy vacancy, occasionally shot through with real anger, that's not unlike Wright's Basquiat, both of them characters who let the physical world flow around them, retreating into their art and the possibilities of expression there.

There are other acting high points, such as Andrea Di Stefano's portrayal of Pepe Malas, Arenas' hyperactive longtime friend and lover. In one of the film's best scenes, he steals a hot-air balloon intended for Arenas' escape (after a Fellini-style bacchanal); Di Stefano's hysterical glee and the subsequent tragedy are one of the few times the film rides its narrative with emotion rather than workmanlike efficiency. There's also Johnny Depp in a hilarious pair of cameos, as a sadistic lieutenant and a drag queen who smuggles Arenas' novel out of prison in her rectum (a little at a time, of course).

The irony of Arenas surviving the crackdown only to succumb to AIDS is not lost, but it comes off-handedly, like an afterthought. "I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor," Arenas wrote in his memoir. Before Night Falls doesn't grovel, but it drags on so long that his death comes as too much of a relief.