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Homage to Javier Bardem

bardem.jpg before-night-falls-typewriter.jpg seainside.jpg

This post is for you, Javier Bardem – you of the dark eyes, substantial neck, and singular profile, portrayer of, among others, a tonsorially challenged killer (No Country for Old Men), tender policemen (Live Flesh and The Dancer Upstairs), and writers in difficult circumstances (Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside).

The literary biography is troublesome as a film genre. If poetry is, as T.S. Eliot said, “an escape from personality,” a film about the poet’s person and personality should be mostly irrelevant to the poet’s work. And perhaps if I had known the work of their subjects–the gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas and the quadriplegic Spanish poet and right-to-die activist Ramon Sampedro–before seeing Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside, I would have approached these movies expecting to get closer to these writers’ works through the revelation of their lives. Because isn’t this usually the inherent draw of the biographic film — the promise of increased intimacy with someone with whom we feel familiar but whom we certainly don’t know?

Instead, these films comprise extreme tales of the writing life. In Before Night Falls, Arenas suffers both political persecution and the more familiar fate of the American writer–isolation, and anonymity.

We first see Arenas first scratching words into trees during an impoverished childhood. We see him rushing to the airport so that he can get his manuscript in the hands of a foreign couple and out of the country so it can be published. Such urgency, Javier! Such vulnerability, but also ego, in your stance!

We see him facing the sea in fins and a small inner tube, trying to flee Cuba. But after he makes it out in the Mariel Boat-lift, we see him in New York, impoverished, stateless, and unknown. And finally, uninsured and ill. It’s an emotional intelligence in your performance, Javier, that keeps all this hardship from seeming mawkish, that tempers the romantic trope of One Man’s Sacrifice for Art.

But there Arenas is, too, on a bright balcony typing away and eating hard boiled eggs. Even when he is in hiding, crouched in a city park, he writes. And when we see him cruising, it reads as an embrace of play, beauty, and the unexpected. Through all the struggle there’s a vivid color, thanks to painter-director Julian Schnabel, and the kind of redeeming humor that would let Arenas say, of his time in prison, “I never wrote so much!” And always there is the physical act of putting words on paper, which seems not to be a choice.