Based on poet Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography, this 2000 film by director Julian Schnabel exposes what it was like for a homosexual dissident writer to live under political persecution in Cuba two decades after Fidel Castro took power. His most known phrase referred to the fact that under Communism “they kick your ass and expect you to applaud” and under Capitalism “they kick your ass also, but you can scream!”
Reinaldo (Javier Bardem) begins telling the audience how was his childhood living in the countryside, his early sexuality as a gay boy, his admiration for Castro’s rebels. Then we watch as he moves to Havana, how he befriends some of the most renowned intellectuals of his time, and writes his first books under the guidance of Jose Lezama Lima and Ignacio Pineiro. Lezama warns him about the government’s extremism. Soon after, the danger becomes real for Arenas when the dictator’s long speeches refer to this kind of intellectuals as a bad influence for Cuba’s youth. The witch hunt begins and Arenas is falsely accused of pedophilia and condemned to prison.
While in prison, one of his books is published in France winning the prize for best novel and with an inmate’s help, a transvestite called Bombom (Johnny Depp), Reinaldo manages to smuggle his new writings out of jail.
After his release, with no place to live, a friend helps him to join a small community of subversive artists who are planning a surreal escape in a hot air balloon. This doesn’t end well and he stampedes with thousands of others into the Peruvian embassy to asks for political asylum in what became the worst Cuban political crisis since the Missile’s one and ended up in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
Once in New York, he finds it difficult to survive as a non-religious, homosexual, anti-Castro writer despite his new found freedom and its exuberance. The film concludes almost as a documentary, showing his last moments alive under his best friend’s care.
Actor Javier Bardem copied Arenas’ mannerisms and physical characteristics remarkably well. However, it’s his personality what keep us all enthralled until the last frame. The movie, besides being one of the few authentic portrayals of that period and place in history to this date, is also a simple homage to someone who dreamed of expressing himself freely amidst social and political barriers almost impossible to overcome, and also an effective condemnation of the way Cuba’s Marxist regime treated gays and intellectual dissenters in the 60’s and 70’s.
See also by director Julian Schnabel: At Eternity’s Gate (2018), The Diving Bell And Te Butterfly (2007), Basquiat (1996).
See also with Javier Bardem: Biutiful (2010), Dance With The Devil (1997).