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Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" is a visually stunning, dreamy biopic that's more engrossing than enlightening. 

This 'Night' Falls Short

Film biographies of artists are most often criticized for failing to show us enough of the real man or woman behind the art and the times that may have triggered their greatness. Instead of warts and angst, films about famous creative people tend to smooth over rough edges or merely scratch the surface of unattractive temperaments — as with the wonderfully acted "Pollock," where we are left wanting more insight into Jackson Pollock's obvious bipolar problems and the roots of his alcoholism.

That's not the case with "Before Night Falls," artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel's second film. Instead, you'll be left wondering if Schnabel understands the meaning of the word "biography." Even with its two-hours-plus running time, "Before Night Falls" seems sketchy on the politics, history and relationships of its subject, Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Although he is an enthusiastic member of Fidel Castro's revolution, Arenas is persecuted and jailed for being gay. But this is no hard-hitting biography. Instead, what Schnabel gives us is a visually intoxicating fever dream, overflowing with images from the poet's impoverished childhood, his coming-out adventures, his emigration from Cuba and, finally, his battle with AIDS.

While the narrative seems too soft-edged for a biography, there are no complaints about Javier Bardem's portrayal of the persecuted poet. Best known for his role in Pedro Almodovar's "Live Flesh," Bardem has an inner fire that illuminates the screen even when Schnabel and his co-screenwriters fall short. Bardem gives a startlingly believable performance, whether portraying Arenas in his early 20s or his late 40s. He effortlessly holds the film together as the only constant as Schnabel switches from location to location. Bardem does get help from several strong performances from supporting characters. Oliver Martinez, who plays the last and apparently most sympathetic of his partners, is the only other character who registers as a complete person, albeit an enigmatic one. Sean Penn has a distracting cameo role as a cart driver early in the film, while Johnny Depp makes the most of two small parts: an ingenious transvestite and a soldier intent on seducing Arenas into a confession. But neither well-known star has enough screen time to do more than shock us with their presence in Cuba. And in the case of Penn, complete with gold tooth and heavy Spanish accent, we're left reeling for all the wrong reasons.

Schnabel seems more interested in Arenas' sexuality than the turbulent historical canvas that provides context for his character's writings. However, working with two cinematographers, Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, Schnabel has crafted a film that's always watchable.

It's easy to see why Schnabel would find film an intriguing medium to work in. Instead of filling canvases with colors and splash and emotion, here he attempts to fill the screen with equally moving imagery. But as a writer, Arenas' chosen medium is words, and it is impossible to tell his story without dealing with them. Consequently, there are lengthy and often verbose voice-overs that seem to contain complete passages from Arenas' memoirs. Although the voice-overs are a cumbersome fit into Schnabel's dreamy biopic, the arresting quality of Arenas' language is more than equal to the director's visual composition. Their presence may be discomfiting, but the words themselves are not. Yet, as with his first film, "Basquiat," Schnabel keeps us at arm's length from his subject. We are reminded again and again that we are merely observers, and that distancing diminishes the film's effectiveness. "Before Night Falls" may be a flawed obituary, but it remains a satisfyingly poetic one. To fill in the blanks between Schnabel's string of vignettes, you may have to read Arenas' book.

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