January 9 , 2001
Movies/by Stephen Schaefer. The Boston Herald.. Monday, January 8, 2001
Even for those completely unfamiliar with his paintings, a visitor would guess Julian Schnabel was an artist simply by the way he dresses.
How many middle-aged men do business in buckskin slippers, a white cotton sailor hat and, when he's not wearing a sarong-style skirt, a bathrobe?
Schnabel, one of the luminaries of Manhattan's '80s art world, is not talking about his paintings these days but "Before Night Falls,'' his second film as a director. By turns a lyrical and horrifying biography of Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas who was persecuted and tortured for being a homosexual in Castro's Cuba, the film is a fitting opening-night presentation of Boston's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It screens Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts prior to its general release in Boston-area theaters later this month or in early February.
Each year, this festival underscores injustices perpetrated by governments against basic human rights. Screenings will be held at the MFA, Coolidge Corner Theatre and the International Institute of Boston.
A large man with a goatee, Schnabel has successfully made the transition to filmmaking. "Basquiat,'' his well-received 1996 debut, focused on self-destructive '80s art world star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Arenas, who was born into poverty and whose gift for poetry made him one of the world's most acclaimed writers, committed suicide in 1990 as he suffered the final throes of AIDS. His memoir, written as he was dying and published in 1993, gives the film its title.
Said Schnabel: "I saw Reinaldo on TV in a documentary and he said, 'My name for the moment is Reinaldo Arenas. I am an exiled Cuban writer and the State Department has declared me stateless, so legally I don't exist. I'm homosexual and anti-Castro and unreligious'' - and that put a hook in me. I thought he was really funny.
"This book 'Before Night Falls' was a very rich palette,'' he added. "First, I didn't think I'd get the rights. I was still working on 'Basquiat' at the time. His book had come out, he was dead and his face was on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Second, it turned out that his friend who was his heir (Lazaro Gomez Carriles) did not give the rights to anybody else.''
In fact, rather than sell the rights to Arenas' book, Carriles worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 4 years as a baker who delivered bread. But after viewing "Basquiat'' and receiving a couple of months' worth of phone calls from Schnabel, he visited the painter's studio and instructed him to turn to Page 312 of Arenas' memoir. Schnabel recites Arenas' prose from memory: " 'I dreamed I was a painter with this gigantic studio and in the middle of it is this painting of people I know immersed in blue. And I get down to the street and I look at Lazaro's beautiful muddy face and I hear my grandmother say "Why?'' and I realize it's not Lazaro who is dead. It's me.' '' Said Schnabel, whose loft features a huge painting of his wife in blue, "Reinaldo wrote me into the script.''
Unlike "Basquiat,'' Schnabel said, "I didn't think of 'Before Night Falls' as about an artist's life but obviously Reinaldo is an artist. It's the story of the enthusiasm and disillusionment with the Cuban revolution and something about the drums of militarism trying to beat down the drums of poetry and life. It's about the right of having your own imagination and it's about freedom.''
The film's overtly anti-Castro stance obviously prevented Schnabel from filming "Before Night Falls'' in Cuba. Still, the film's Vera Cruz, Mexico, re-creations make it hard to believe he didn't sneak back onto the island with a camera and crew. "We shot for 60 days in the rainy season in Mexico without stopping once for the weather,'' he said, unabashedly proud. "We never stopped.''
"Before Night Falls'' is likely to nab a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Spain's Javier Bardem, who has won several prizes already. The film also features a cameo by Sean Penn and two, brief contrasting roles by Johnny Depp. Both stars are Schnabel's friends. Depp is particularly startling as Bon Bon, the imprisoned transvestite who helps Arenas smuggle his manuscripts out of jail.
Schnabel's wife plays the mother of the infant Arenas and his daughter, Lola, a 19-year-old art student in London, helped costume Depp. "We had a black wig, a red wig, and I liked a pink bandana,'' said Schnabel. "Lola took this kind of organza boa and tied it around Johnny. I wrote 'Patria Muerte' on his neck, like a tattoo, and Lola did this crisscross bandolera.''
Yes, it's but one example of the artist's touch.
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