Birth-to-death biopics about great artists and writers rarely work, for several reasons. For one, the psychology applied to the subject's childhood can come off as sketchy and trite, because genius can rarely be explained. On the flip side, the end of a screen life stretched over many decades and personal trials tends to be coated in extra bathos. Most of all, the essence of what makes a person's work vital and important long after his or her death cannot always be captured by straight biography. More mysterious, implacable forces are usually at work, better captured through distilled periods of time (Topsy-Turvy) or impressionistic fragments (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould). Though a well-regarded artist in his own right, Julian Schnabel made many of these mistakes in his directorial debut, 1996's pedestrian biopic Basquiat, and he makes them again in Before Night Falls, an ambitious but emotionally diffuse look at Cuban-born poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Based on Arenas' memoir of the same name, the film begins with his impoverished childhood in the Cuban countryside, where he was seduced by the revolutionary rhetoric that would eventually lead to his censorship and persecution. Doubly cursed as a homosexual intellectual, he was able to publish his first novel in Cuba, but his subsequent work had to be smuggled elsewhere. His efforts subjected him to frequent injustices and a long prison term; in 1980, he was finally able to flee to America, where he died from AIDS 10 years later. Played with transfixing passion and nuance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem (Live Flesh; Jamón, Jamón), Arenas embarks on a journey echoing that of many Cuban exiles betrayed by the Castro regime. The social and political oppression he experiences as a young man, particularly his terrifying stint in jail, represents Before Night Falls' most riveting section. Had Schnabel focused more intently on this period, or Arenas' formative years, or his nightmarish decade in Miami and New York, the writer's story might have been more affecting. But the birth-to-death treatment is sloppy and disorganized, with little continuity over time and supporting players dropping in and out of sight. It's telling when Lázaro Gómes Carriles—Arenas' companion, the co-screenwriter, and the second-billed character—receives a dedication in the closing credits, and it's hard to remember who he is.

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