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Before Night Falls Review

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Celebration of the life and work of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, a peasant boy who joined the Revolution but later was imprisoned and tortured. Exile in the US brought fresh sorrows, but Arenas' was an unbreakable spirit.

★★★★

When painter/sculptor Julian Schnabel debuted as a writer/director with a biopic of his friend and fellow artist, Basquiat, cynical expectations of pretentious artiness were confounded by a good movie.

Again undertaking the tricky challenge of portraying an artist, Schnabel not only brings Arenas (Javier Bardem, electrifying in his first English language role) and his writing to vivid, compelling life, but also evokes a Latin American culture and landscape with beguiling cinematic style. While this is complex material, spanning a defiant artist's lifelong compulsion to express himself and suffer harrowing consequences, it's thoroughly involving and beautifully realised. Schnabel soars between powerful realism and dreamlike metaphor, with haunting and hallucinogenic sequences complementing Arenas' poetry, read in the original Spanish.

He also knows how to party; with Havana in the heady days of post-Revolutionary promise a vibrant, seedy kaleidoscope of joyous self-discovery, dancers and lovers. The subsequent crackdown on counter-revolutionaries is emotively conveyed, as writers, dreamers and gays, lumped together as dissidents, endure brutalisation and concoct tragicomic escape attempts.

Reinaldo finds ways to keep writing and get his pages out. Depp does an intriguingly effective double as both a coolly sadistic prison officer and the flamboyant transvestite, Bon Bon, who smuggles a novel out up his "khyber pass". Other notables include Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco as the youthful Arenas' mentor; Wincott, seizing a rare break from gravel-voiced heavies, is great as a writer tormented into publicly denouncing his friends; and Penn has a strange cameo as a cackling old peasant.

Terrific: poetic, moving and uplifting. Bardem's wonderful work - humorous, ardent, noble - didn't just deserve that "surprise" Oscar nomination. He should have won.