Reinaldo Arenas was a gay Cuban poet, and given the harsh government in Cuba, he was severely persecuted for those other two labels. There’s nothing in that statement that couldn’t be offered in a footnote in a history book, yet those facts are all you learn about Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s overrated film, which purports to be a biography yet turns out to be a hazy sketch.
Admittedly, that sketch is often gorgeous to behold. Being a painter, the images crafted by Schnabel, with the help of cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosasin, are lovely and poetic, befitting the film’s subject. But the extension of that style into other areas is the film’s undoing; a same impressionist vagueness plagues the script by Schnabel, Cunningham O’Keefe, and Lazaro Gomez Carriles, and as such we never really get a sense of who Arenas was. Sure, there are glimpses of his impoverished childhood, and there are tastes of the writing that made him internationally known, but the film seems less about Arenas than simply what happens to him-his work is confiscated; he’s sent to prison. After making a grand escape to New York City, Arenas the man may have been freed from Fidel Castro’s oppressive walls, but Arenas the film character is further imprisoned by the script, which then becomes more concerned with his latest victimizer: AIDS.
I imagine the intent was to break this pioneer free from such labels as “gay,” “Cuban,” and “poet,” but this languid film is all surface, however beautiful that surface may be. In keeping with the rest of the film, Bardem is perfectly adequate as Arenas, but he is hardly the dramatic revelation that his numerous accolades would imply. He simply does what the script calls for him to do, which is basically sustain a look of pain for two-hours plus. Emphasis on the word “look”; the audience can see that he suffers, but no one ever feels that anguish with him — which points up the film’s basic failing.