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American Artist Paints a Moving Film Portrait

Documentary Inspires Director Julian Schnabel to Tell the Story of Cuban Writer Arenas

March 08, 2001|CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN | BALTIMORE SUN

The defiant man stared into the camera and said: "For the moment, my name is Reinaldo Arenas. The Justice Department has declared me stateless, so legally I don't exist. I'm living in no place, on the edge of society, in any place in the world."

Arenas, an exiled Cuban author, did this taped interview in the early 1980s, shortly after he had arrived in what he hoped would be his new country, the United States. It was a short appearance, but full of power, passion and wit.

And a decade and a half later, it caught the eye of American film director Julian Schnabel, who watched a documentary about Arenas one night at a friend's suggestion.

"That made me want to find out more," Schnabel recalled during a recent visit to Washington to publicize the film.

What he found was a complex and fascinating character who, before his suicide in the face of AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, waged a long and ultimately losing battle against the Cuban government through his writings and his open homosexuality.

Since his introduction to Arenas five years ago, Schnabel followed his curiosity, translating Arenas' story to the big screen in a searingly painful, lushly shot portrait. Titled "Before Night Falls" after Arenas' autobiography, Schnabel's film has been acclaimed across the country, and its lead actor, Javier Bardem, has been nominated for an Oscar.

Arenas "turned his suffering into beauty, and I found beauty in his work that I could transform into film," Schnabel said. "And I think it's a film you can watch more than once because you kind of look at it the way you would look at a painting. I mean, you know the story, you know the guy's gonna die, but how the hell does he get there?"

Schnabel, 49, knows the similarities between film and painting well. He began his career as a highly successful artist who shot to fame in the 1980s Manhattan art world with avant-garde works that included paintings encrusted with shards of shattered crockery.

A tall, husky and gregarious man, Schnabel over the years has been described as charmingly self-confident and shamelessly cocky. But during his Washington visit, he just appeared frazzled from a day packed with nine media interviews.

He wasn't too tired to indulge his perfectionism, annoyed at how the darkening sky outside his hotel room window was interfering with the photo shoot.

He thought a recent snapshot of him in a national newspaper looked like "they sent a blind photographer to take my picture," and he was determined to prevent similar gaffes.

"Those are terrible paintings over there," he snapped, wagging his finger with disdain at the pastel floral prints on the walls, the standard hotel-room fare. "You don't want them in the picture."

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It is this same take-charge fussiness that inspired Schnabel to turn his artistic vision to the big screen. An avid film fan since his childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., Schnabel first considered making movies in the early 1990s, when a film was being made about his friend and fellow New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who overdosed on heroin in 1988 at 27. After chatting with the script writers, Schnabel said he decided that he could do a better job. In 1996, he made his directorial debut with "Basquiat."

"The fact that I can support myself and finance the movie because I'm a painter gives me the kind of freedom that other directors don't have," said Schnabel, whose paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Arenas, 47 when he died, grew up an illegitimate child in rural, poverty-stricken Cuba. As an adult, he was persecuted because of his homosexuality and writings that at times portrayed Fidel Castro's government in a bad light. He was tortured, imprisoned several times and forced to sign documents including "confessions" and pledges to praise the Communist government that tormented him.

In the film, Schnabel shows him locked up in solitary confinement--a filth-smeared, rat-infested, windowless room that seems no bigger than a box. Arenas escaped Cuba in 1980 as part of the famed Mariel boat lift in which 250,000 "undesirables" were allowed to leave for the United States.

Schnabel insisted that his film was not a political statement. "I didn't have some kind of dogmatic reason for making the movie," he said. "It's very hard to tell a story about something that has political implications without it becoming political. But Reinaldo said, 'I'm not from the right or the left. And I don't want to be used under any opportunistic political labels. I tell my truth, as does the Jew that suffered racism or the Russian that's been in the Gulag."'

Schnabel said that if the movie has a theme, it's when Arenas says: "Always the drums of militarism stifling the rhythm of poetry and life."

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