Johnny Depp turns up in this 2000 film from director Julian Schnabel in two small, but pivotal roles. Before Night Falls examines the life and death of Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas in a series of vignettes from his life.
Javier Bardem plays Arenas with the great emotion, conveying not only Reinaldo’s sexual awakening as a gay man in 1960s Cuba, but his struggle of conscience as he continues to write in the face of increased government pressure to silence him. Many of the sequences are poetic and dreamlike in the sense they feel ethereal and detached from reality. In several scenes we see Reinaldo imaging one reality only to be confronted with another starker image.
Depp shows up two-thirds of the way into the film as Bon Bon, a transvestite inmate who in makes a deal with Reinaldo to help smuggle his manuscript out of prison. In an interview in Johnny Depp Starts Here” by Murray Pomerance, Depp said his character was channelling his inner Sophia Loren in this role. Depp demonstrates his ability to amplify his feminine side as an actor. The confidence he exudes in this role makes the character stand out in the few scenes Bon Bon appears in.
Depp’s second role is almost the polar opposite of his role as Bon Bon. Instead of the feminine, transgressive, co-conspirator and fellow inmate of Reinaldo, Depp plays Lieutenant Victor, a hyper-masculine oppressor, and interrogator of Reinaldo’s writing, sexuality, and political views. Victor wants to break down Reinaldo and force him to renounce his writing and counter-revolutionary propaganda in exchange for the promise that he will be released. In one of those “Is he dreaming?” scenes Reinaldo visualizes Victor pressing his crotch to Reinaldo’s face in a moment of faux-comfort, but real domination.
Reinaldo eventually escapes Castro’s regime in Cuba by becoming part of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, claiming refugee status in New York City. The remainder of the film touches on his time spent in exile and his declining health which is alluded to in the film as being AID/HIV related.
One of the central things I took away from he film was about the power and beauty of art. In a scene when Reinaldo is first discovering his voice as a writer he is taken aside by two famous writers, Virgilio Piñera and José Lezama Lima to help mentor him. Lima explains in a speech to Reinaldo that art is dangerous.
“People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship
They create beauty
and beauty is the enemy.
Artists are escapists.
Artists are counter-revolutionary.
There’s a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty so he wants to eliminate it.”
An interesting and powerful movie worth watching not just for Depp’s small roles, but Reinaldo Arenas’ story and Cuba’s struggle.
By the Numbers
- 4th film in which Depp wears a bandanna or scarf in his hair.
- 2nd film in which Depp appears in women’s clothing.
- 2nd film in which Depp uses a “Spanish” accent.
- 2nd film since Platoon where he is not one of the principal characters of the film.
Up next in the queue for review is the Sally Potter drama “The Man Who Cried” (2000)