Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Naturally, a dictatorship would deem the beautiful escape of artistic expression counterrevolutionary. But imagine what the survival of that aesthetic in a poisonous climate would do for an artist’s awareness — an appreciation for the activism of words to flip the switch for inspiration in someone else.
A visual artist before he became a director, Julian Schnabel excels in films about artists who triumphed through insurmountable odds for expression at any cost. His second film, 2000’s Before Night Falls, chronicled the politics and petulance that drove Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas’s creativity and self-destruction.
Night also introduced American audiences to Javier Bardem, who earned his first Oscar nomination in a performance that blends the character-creating swagger of Robert Downey Jr. and the brooding of a young Al Pacino.
In narration, Arenas says absolute freedom came with absolute poverty as a child, and indifference from his family bred insolence present in his sexual relationships (homosexual — a jailable offense if discovered in 1960s Cuba). Compare the scene of Arenas as a toddler playing naked in a pit to one where he’s driven mad in a tiny cell and see the Cuba of his youth turned from simple pleasure to complex pain.
Forgive Schnabel the jarring celebrity cameos — Sean Penn as a farmer with the worst ethnic makeup this side of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Johnny Depp in two roles representing Cuba’s wild dichotomy. Night offers an exuberant portrayal of a writer whose legacy remains an acutely observant childhood spirit that no perversion of politics could break.