AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Before Night Falls
Director: Julian Schnabel (Dir)
Release Date:   26 Jan 2001
Duration (in mins):  133
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Cast: Olatz Lopez Garmendia  (Reinaldo's mother)
  Giovani Florido  (Young Reinaldo)
  Loló Navarro  (Reinaldo's grandmother)
 

Summary: In 1943, three-month-old Reinaldo Arenas, abandoned by his father, is taken by his mother to her parents’ home in Cuba’s Oriente province. As a young boy, Reinaldo lives a life of “absolute poverty and freedom,” and develops a love of nature, especially the trees, which he believes have a secret life, and the rain, which envelops the countryside. One day, Reinaldo is approached by a handsome stranger, who gives him two pesos, and when his mother throws rocks at the man, Reinaldo deduces that he is his father. Reinaldo never sees his father again and continues living with his taciturn grandfather, powerful grandmother and unhappy aunts. At school, Reinaldo shows a great gift for poetry, and even carves poems into the trees on his family’s farm. When his teacher informs his grandfather of Reinaldo’s talents, the infuriated old man chops down one of Reinaldo’s trees and moves the family to the town of Holguín, where he opens a grocery store. In 1958, Reinaldo and his best friend Carlos decide to run away from home and join Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in their attempt to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. Before they leave, Carlos dares Reinaldo have sex with prostitute Lolin, but only by thinking of Carlos is Reinaldo able to perform. Later that night, Reinaldo runs away, but Carlos is too afraid to join him. Alone, Reinaldo walks along a country road until the next day, when he is picked up by a peasant named Cuco Sanchez. When Reinaldo admits that he is going to Velasco to join the rebels, Sanchez tells him that the guerrillas are no longer there and orders him to return home. After Castro gains control of Cuba, the peasants believe that life will soon be better for everyone. By 1964, Reinaldo has moved to Havana and begun studying at a state-run college for agricultural accountants. Reinaldo has not forgotten his love of writing, however, and when he enters the National Library’s Young Writer’s Contest, a moving excerpt from his novel in progress convinces librarian María Teresa Freye de Andrade and influential writers Herbeto Zorilla Ochoa and Virgilio Piñera to hire him to work at the library. Reinaldo is thrilled to be surrounded by so many books, and one day after work, meets the charismatic Pepe Malas. Although Reinaldo is aware of his own homosexuality, he at first repulses the bisexual Pepe’s advances, but soon falls in love with him. Pepe finds Reinaldo an old typewriter and a small apartment, and Reinaldo devotes himself to finishing his first novel, Celestina antes del alba ( Singing from the Well ). Reinaldo submits his manuscript to the writers’ union contest, then spends an evening out with Pepe. Reinaldo is deeply hurt when Pepe ignores him to pursue a woman, and leaves to spend the night with another friend, Tomas Diego. Shortly after, Reinaldo is reading on a beach when he is approached by a swimmer, Lázaro Gómez Carriles, although the stunningly handsome young man violently rejects Reinaldo’s advances. Reinaldo is cheered, however, when his novel wins honorable mention in the contest, and he is introduced to renowned writer José Lezama Lima. Believing in Reinaldo’s talent, Piñera helps him to edit his book and soon it is published in Cuba to great acclaim. As the 1960s continue, Reinaldo and his friends, including the Abreu brothers, enjoy the sexual revolution that young people throughout Cuba are participating in despite the political repression of Castro’s government. Eventually Reinaldo and his friends begin to see sex as a weapon with which to fight the regime that persecutes homosexuals, artists and intellectuals, although not all of their compatriots can withstand the pressure. After Zorilla Ochoa is arrested and forced to make a televised confession, renouncing his friends and his writings, his wife commits suicide, and Reinaldo himself experiences more persecution. Lezama Lima arranges for Reinaldo to meet his friends, Jorge and Margarita Camacho, who are soon to return to France after visiting Cuba. The Camachos, fans of Reinaldo’s writing, agree to smuggle out his next book, El mundo alucinante ( Hallucinations ), which he has been unable to publish in Cuba. Later, on 26 October 1974, Reinaldo and Pepe lounge on the beach with two young men in their late teens, and after Pepe has a temper tantrum that distracts Reinaldo, the two youths steal Reinaldo’s swim fins. Reinaldo reports the theft and is horrified when the thieves accuse him of molesting them. Reinaldo is jailed but takes advantage of the loose security to slip out an unlocked door. He then attempts to swim to Florida in an inner tube, but fails, and slashes his wrists in a deserted beach house. After he recovers from his unsuccessful suicide attempt, Reinaldo hides in Havana’s Lenin Park, and is aided by his friend, Juan Abreu, who brings him food and money. Reinaldo is captured eventually and taken to the notorious El Morro Castle prison, where he is incarcerated not as a political prisoner but a suspected rapist, murderer and CIA agent. Reinaldo’s reputation as a writer spreads throughout the prison, however, and soon he amasses a fortune in cigarettes by writing letters for other inmates. Using his cigarettes to buy paper and pencils, Reinaldo completes another novel and befriends Bon Bon, a glamorous transvestite, who smuggles the manuscript out of the prison by hiding it in his rectum and passing it to visitors. Reinaldo’s scheme is uncovered, however, and he is punished by being held in a tiny, filthy cell without any contact. When he is dragged out, Reinaldo is taken to see Lt. Victor, and although Reinaldo distracts himself by fantasizing about the attractive officer, Victor terrorizes him into making a confession renouncing his former life. After his release, Reinaldo goes to live with Blanca Romero, a friend, and helps her to sell off the contents of a walled-up convent next to her apartment building. At Blanca’s, Reinaldo again meets Lázaro and the two become devoted friends. Some of Blanca’s compatriots scheme to escape Cuba in a hot-air balloon, but the balloon is stolen by Pepe, who dies when it crashes to the ground. Later, in 1980, after Lázaro is able to leave Cuba in an exodus of people claiming asylum at the Peruvian embassy, Reinaldo learns that Castro has agreed to let criminals, homosexuals and the mentally insane leave Cuba. Soon Reinaldo and Lázaro are reunited in New York, where they are overwhelmed with happiness at their freedom. Reinaldo continues to write but remains poor despite receiving critical acclaim, and when he falls ill with AIDS, cannot receive proper medical attention because he does not have insurance. Unable to continue working, Reinaldo decides to kill himself, and after telling Lázaro that he is the most “authentic” boy he has ever met, makes him promise that he will not awaken in a hospital. Lázaro reluctantly agrees, and after Reinaldo falls asleep from an overdose of pills, his loyal friend smothers him with a plastic bag. 

Distribution Company: Fine Line Features
Production Company: Grandview Pictures
Director: Julian Schnabel (Dir)
  Sebastián Silva (Asst dir)
  Joaquín Silva (Key 2d asst dir)
  Amy Lynn (Key 2d asst dir, New York)
  Giselle Gurza (2d 2d asst dir)
  Yvette Gurza (2d 2d asst dir)
Producer: Jon Kilik (Pres)
  Julian Schnabel (Exec prod)
  Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Exec prod)
  Jon Kilik (Prod)
  Matthías Ehrenberg (Assoc prod)
Writer: Cunningham O'Keefe (Wrt)
  Lázaro Gómez Carriles (Wrt)
  Julian Schnabel (Wrt)

Subject Major: Reinaldo Arenas
  Authors
  Cuba--History
  Cubans
  Homosexuality
  Political prisoners
  Political persecution
 
Subject Minor: AIDS (Disease)
  Balloons (Hot air)
  Betrayal
  Fidel Castro
  Confession (Law)
  Contests
  Education
  Escapes
  False accusations
  Friendship
  Havana (Cuba)
  Immigration
  Informers
  Libraries and librarians
  Manuscripts
  Morro Castle (Havana, Cuba)
  Mothers and sons
  New York City
  Officers (Military)
  Poetry
  Poverty
  Smuggling
  Suicide
  Torture
  Transvestites

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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