Grade: B

Since director Julian Schnabel began his career as a painter, it’s understandable that his films–first “Basquiat” (1996) and now “Before Night Falls”–should center on tormented artists. Nor is it surprising that his second feature, a portrait of Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban novelist forced into exile because of his writing and lifestyle, should have an impressionistic tone, offering some of the most bewitching images to be found on screen this year. It also provides a showcase for a wrenching, powerhouse lead performance by Javier Bardem as the doomed author. But Bardem, good as he is, fails to connect emotionally with the viewer as fully as he should, because Schnabel’s mannered style, while resulting in many lovely individual compositions, doesn’t allow the material to be organized strongly enough to bring the writer’s life as a whole into clear focus. The result is a succession of extraordinary parts which, unhappily, don’t come together into a single, unified whole; the momentary impressions, while often magnificent, finally lack the coherence which the story needs to achieve its full effect.

“Before Night Falls” is based on Arena’s memoir, which was published posthumously some three years after the author’s suicide in the face of the debilitaation caused by AIDS. Using snippets from the book and other writings by Arenas as commentary, the picture offers glimpses of the author’s rural childhood (indicating briefly his early attraction to men) and then portrays his original enthusiasm for Castro’s Revolution and growing disenchantment with a communist regime that tries to repress both his talent and his sexual inclinations. As his literary and social circle is brutalized more and more harshly, Arenas finds himself increasingly harassed, until he’s arrested when falsely accused of molesting some young thieves at a beach. He escapes and tries unsuccessfully to flee the country, but is eventually taken into custody and imprisoned in a gruesome camp, where he survives by writing letters for illiterate inmates; he also pens his own work, which he smuggles out of jail for publication abroad. Eventually his treachery is discovered and he’s put in solitary confinement so crushingly hard that he ultimately signs a confession of his crimes. Released, he and a group of pals attempt another far-fetched escape in a hot-air balloon, but his ultimate departure results from the Mariel Harbor exodus of 1980. The film skips over his unhappy attempt to assimilate into the Miami community in favor of a concluding act set in New York, where he enjoys a close relationship with a fellow emigre, Lazaro Gomez Carilles (a co-author of the script, and here played by Olivier Martinez), until the ravages of AIDS persuade him to end his life as he lived it–on his own terms.

The scheme of this precis may be clear, but the film isn’t bound by it. It generally follows the chronology, but feels free to omit a good deal of connecting explanation in favor of elaborate set-pieces concentrating on major episodes, each presented in a style suited to it (from gritty to stunningly dreamlike); and it often inserts flashbacks and archival footage to add color and emphasis. This procedure certainly accentuates the atmosphere of the author’s various experiences and gives each of them emotional resonance–the sequence showing Arenas’ stay in solitary is brutally graphic, while the childhood moments, as well as an elegiac episode depicting his arrival in a dark, snowy New York City, have an almost ethereal, fantastic quality–but also sows some confusion in the narrative line. Schnabel also sometimes resorts to sadly unsubtle excesses, as well he dramatizes a police assault on a group of gay partygoers by showing the violence in slow-motion and accompanying it with the strains of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (already employed so famously by Luchino Visconti to accompany Aschenbach’s end in 1971’s “Death in Venice”).

That all of this isn’t fatal is largely the result of Bardem’s extraordinary performance, which captures the writer’s almost whimsical but also deeply fearful attitude toward Castro’s repressive regime and probes his pain with remarkable acuity. Bardem certainly doesn’t make Arenas into a plaster saint; he portrays the author as a talented but flawed and complex individual, conscious of his own weaknesses. The one major problem with Bardem has to do with his heavy accent: some of his dialogue is difficult to decipher, and the same is true of the frequent narration from Arenas’ writings which Bardem reads over the visuals. (Sporadically the dialogue is kept in Spanish, with subtitles, which is a trifle perplexing, too.)

The remainder of the cast is distinctly secondary to Bardem’s turn. Martinez is low-key and sympathetic as the author’s only friend in the last period of his life, and Andrea Di Stefano suitably despicable as the bisexual who betrays Arenas in a variety of ways. Schnabel has miscalculated, however, by inducing Johnny Depp and Sen Penn to take part in the project, the latter as a seedy wagoner and the former in a dual role, first as a tranvestite who helps smuggles Arenas’ writing out of prison and then as the lieutenant whose threats finally force the writer to sign his false confession. Both stars exert a diligent effort to submerge themselves in the roles, but their appearances can’t help being a jarring distraction.

Despite miscalculations in construction and casting, however, “Before Night Falls” can still be confidently recommended for its powerful subject, the frequent flashes of visual beauty and horror that Schnabel achieves, and Bardem’s impressive lead performance. It represents a considerable advance on “Basquiat,” and makes one look forward to Schnabel’s future efforts.