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Odds make it unlikely in the extreme that Spanish actor Javier Bardem is going to come away Sunday night with the Oscar for Best Actor. At this point, we’re facing a toss-up between Russell Crowe or Tom Hanks for that honor: Gladiator vs. desert island FedEx man, if you will.
But there is something very interesting — possibly even quite significant — about Bardem’s even being nominated for one of these treasured awards. For starters, he’s a Spaniard and indeed, very few foreign actors are nominated for such a major prize. Second, the film in which he plays the lead — “Before Night Falls” — received not a single other nomination, even in the most minor category. Third, the director, Julian Schnabel, is primarily an artist — a fellow who paints pictures. Schnabel’s canvases go for many hundred-thousand dollars apiece. (A few years back, he would glue dinner plates to a canvas and then break the plates or glue broken pieces to the canvas — I don’t remember which — then would daub some color on the result. You get the idea.)
In any event, in visual and directorial terms, Schnabel’s film is disconnected, choppy, and often murky. What makes the film eminently worthy of our attention is that, pitiful as it may be as a work of cinema art, it attempts to bring to the screen the autobiography of distinguished Cuban poet and author Reinaldo Arenas, who died of suicide at 47 in Manhattan.
Arenas was a homosexual, and the lot of homosexuals in Fidel Castro’s Cuba was not a happy one. Arenas who was 15 when Castro was received in triumph in Havana, in January 1959, knew all the ins and outs of homosexual life from that of poor peasants to one or two high-ranking aides of Castro protected by their positions. He was also a gifted writer. Thwarted from having his novels published in his own country, he wound up in the dread El Moro prison for several years for having smuggled his manuscripts abroad, where they were published to considerable praise.
Eventually Arenas was able to get to the United States during the Mariel boatlift, Castro being eager to deport criminals and enemies of the state, such as homosexuals.
Life was not that welcoming Arenas discovered. “I remember that, after I arrived in the United States, a Cuban exile who lived in Washington said to me: ‘Don’t ever quarrel with the left.’ For people like him, to attack Castro’s government was to fight against the left. But after twenty years of repression, how could I keep silent about those crimes? On the other hand, I never considered myself as belonging to the ‘left’ or to the ‘right,’ nor do I want to be included under any opportunistic or political label. I tell my truth, as does the Jew who has suffered racism, or the Russian who has been in the Gulag or any human being who has eyes to see the way things really are. I scream, therefore I exist.”
Wonder of wonders. The Washington Post’s columnist (March 20) Richard Cohen — a writer certainly always leaning more leftwards than otherwise — saw the film, read Arenas’ book freshly issued in paperback and came away to write a downright surprising column convinced now by Arenas of the evil Castro has exercised over the lives of Cubans all these years. Cohen even goes so far as to cite the figures from Freedom House rating Castro’s regime as being even more repressive than China’s. (Cuba gets a 7.7; China, 7.6.)
Does this mark one man’s eyes suddenly opening to the truth — or can it be a small but vital straw in the cultural wind? Did Hollywood, whose members certainly receive royal treatment whenever one or more of their number gets to Cuba, suddenly feel in the face of this film showing just what cruel and brutal treatment is meted out to homosexuals that being pro-Castro today was, well, perhaps not fashionable anymore? Not cool perhaps?