Sexual revolution

Film - Charlotte Raven is unmoved by an quaint portrait of the artist as an outsider

When Before Night Falls was shown at the Human Rights Watch festival in London earlier this year, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign picketed the screening. The least sustainable of the campaigners' objections was that the director, the painter Julian Schnabel, had failed to reveal his subject as the slag he clearly was. By his own account, the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas had sex with more than 5,000 men. In the romantic terms of a film that sees shagging as dissident activity, this (under the circumstances) reckless commitment to the act is presented as both daring and heroic. Far from underplaying the extent of Arenas's promiscuity, Schnabel boasts about it in an effort to convince the audience that radicalism - real radicalism, as opposed to the phoney sort that lay behind the Cuban revolution - is a matter not of what you say or think, but of what you essentially are.

To this end, Schnabel portrays Arenas (Javier Bardem) as someone who never chose to write. Rather, he was chosen by the same deity that bestowed on this director his own burning desire to create, to be one of those people charged with expressing the truths of all humanity. We know Arenas is one of Them because, as a young boy at the start of the film, he is compelled to write gnomic messages on trees. The public reception of this early "work" - his teacher hails him as a poet and his father beats him - is a foretaste of what the Artist can expect from a world that will adore and revile him in equal measure. As his mentor tells him later: "The people that make art are dangerous." Whether they are painting watercolours or writing polemical tracts, the very fact of their existence is an affront to any system that relies for its success on colonising the souls of its subjects. Thus, when Arenas is spending what appear to be idle hours entwined with "the youth of the time", we know that what he's really engaged in is the battle to save us all from stiffs in shirts who haven't tuned in to their own poetic rhythms.

This noble calling occupies him for the first five years of the post-revolutionary period. At a time when you might have thought a writer would be rather busy making sense of these historic events, Arenas is down on the beach, making eyes at sun-kissed Habaneros. Incredibly, we never get the slightest hint of what he thinks about Castro's government. His opposition, such as it is, is presented as aesthetic and poetic. It's bare chests versus starched collars, naked arses versus buttoned lips, life versus death. Not having read the memoir on which the film is based, I don't know whether this is a grotesque misrepresentation of Arenas or a pretty accurate portrayal of a man who shared Schnabel's belief that the purpose of art is to transcend, rather than illuminate, material reality. In choosing to feature only those bits of his work that deal with a Brodie's Notes idea of Universal Human Themes, Schnabel confines himself to filming an A-level essay about an artistic archetype as quaint and outmoded as his belief that Castro's Cuba is a straightforward dictatorship. No one thinks that any more. And only children and hippies still believe in the vagabond poet whose special status gives him the right to exist outside the main arenas of human life.

"I live on the margins of every society," says Arenas, just before discovering that the US healthcare system has the same arbitrary notion as the Cuban militia of whose life is worth saving. Dying of Aids in a hovel because no hospital will take him in, he sees no irony in the fact that the American doctors have managed what a period in a godforsaken Cuban jail could not. Fading as he was at this point, I just wanted him to rouse himself to tell me how he felt about the situation. Was he dying a cynical man whose faith in human beings had been tested beyond endurance, or was he an idealist who never lost that conviction for a minute? Did he wish things had been different? Had his outlook been much altered by the transition from dissidence to exile?

I know it all sounds a bit Paxmanish, but nothing at the end of this film redeemed Arenas from the appearance of being a man to whom nothing of note had ever happened. Insulated from experience and detached from his physical context, this Arenas was praised for ending his life the same way as he had started it - as the enigmatic poet-outsider, for whom art was a means of escaping hard-to-connect-with things such as mothers and revolutions. As innocent of everything as he was the moment he appeared on the screen, Arenas fumbled towards oblivion with the same stoic indifference that he had betrayed in the face of every other momentous event.

Before Night Falls (15) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England