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A painter’s idea of a writer’s life, Before Night Falls is most cogent when it leaves mere naturalism behind. Anything but thoughtful, Julian Schnabel’s second film tries to evoke Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas’ emotions more than recount his actions. It’s no accident that one of the most effective sequences portrays Arenas’ childhood, a period in which the child and the audience share a blessed cluelessness about what the hell is going on. An unfamiliar man gives coins to the mystified little boy, who’s even more surprised when his mother throws stones at the stranger. The man, we’re led to conclude, is Arenas’ father, making his first and only appearance in the story.

Gradually, some of the facts of Arenas’ life are revealed. The boy grows up poor in the country and moves to town just in time for the revolution. He’s sexually initiated by a (female) hooker, runs away to join the rebels, but seems to find his purpose not in shooting a gun but in coupling with soldiers. Documentary footage melds with the director’s raw-colored depiction of a delirious homoerotic idyll, quickly interrupted. “The revolution wasn’t for everybody,” Arenas learns, and soon both his sexuality and his writing are illegal.

Although Before Night Falls looks nothing like a chilly Eastern European tale of communist oppression, the facts are similar: Arenas must write and read a confession, endure official harassment, and spend years in prison, including a stint in a cell too small to stand up in. Yet he manages sometimes to find erotic release—the novelist claimed to have had sex with 5,000 men—and to smuggle his semiautobiographical novels to a publisher in France. After a suicide attempt and two failed escape plans—one involving a near-surrealistic balloon flight—the Mariel boatlift unexpectedly frees Arenas, who lives the last 10 years of his life in Miami (a period the film skips) and New York. The latter is depicted as the gray, joyless city where Arenas commits suicide, perhaps because of the pain of exile, maybe because he has AIDS, or possibly out of sheer exhaustion. Certainly, Schnabel’s portrayal never suggests that Arenas lived too little.

Like Basquiat, the director’s first film, Before Night Falls is a wildly romantic tale of the sort of tormented, persecuted artist Schnabel will never be. That it is something of a self-portrait is revealed by the many appearances by Schnabel’s friends, including distracting cameos by Johnny Depp (in two roles), Sean Penn, and Basquiat star Michael Wincott. Directors Hector Babenco and Jerzy Skolimowski also appear, and Schnabel’s wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, plays the all-too-archetypal role of Arenas’ mother. Luckily, Benicio Del Toro turned down the title role, leading Schnabel to enlist Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor little known in this country. Bardem embodies Arenas utterly, giving the character gravity and poignance even when the film’s tone falters.

It hardly matters that Bardem’s heavily accented English is sometimes indecipherable—comprehension increases on those occasions when the film switches to subtitled Spanish—because Schnabel is not very interested in Arenas’ words. Before Night Falls’ humid lyricism goes dry whenever the narrative gets tangled in too many facts, whether biographical or literary. The movie is most compelling when Schnabel—with the crucial assistance of cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas’ rich hues—is indulging his notions of Arenas as a tropical wild boy. It’s less convincing when the director tries to make a place for the novelist in his world, whether inserting music by Manhattan art pals Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed into Carter Burwell’s Caribbean score or cross-cutting scenes of Havana and New York’s mean streets in a final urban elegy. When Schnabel ultimately returns to the image of Arenas as a naked baby in the jungle, he captures some sort of essence—if not of the novelist, then at least of this hallucinatory film.

Whether or not you buy Revelation’s apocalyptic fancies, the New Testament’s last book is quite a trip, full of grotesque beasts, hideous plagues, and sulfurous fires. By comparison, Left Behind: The Movie is a Sunday-school picnic—sans pepper or mustard. The big shocker in this Armageddon sermonette, derived from the first book in a phenomenally successful series of fundamentalist-Christian thrillers, is that Biblical literalists are right. When the Rapture occurs, innocent children and goody-goody Christers ascend to heaven, leaving ill-informed spouses and offspring confused, distraught, and unready to battle the Antichrist, who just happens to be the new head of the United Nations.

Released last year on video, Left Behind sold more than a million copies, presumably to devoted readers of Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ serial, which has reached the eighth of 12 volumes. It remains to be seen if anyone else will care. The movie advances a vision of humanity’s final days that many Christians—not to mention non-Christians—will find ridiculous, but it cloaks its nuttiness in familiar conventions. Dates and locations crawl across the bottom of the screen as if this were a secular thriller, and most of the action takes place in Chicago, Hollywood shorthand for middle-American normality. The fate of the world is at stake, but that world seems to consist almost entirely of the United States (home of millions of apocalypse-minded Christians) and Israel (locus of many Biblical prophecies).

The end begins in the latter country, where crack GNN correspondent Buck Williams (former Growing Pains star and born-againer Kirk Cameron) observes some Revelation-like developments that are cast in terms of modern armaments and biotechnology. Soon, he’s on a flight from Chicago to London when the Rapture hits. True believers suddenly vanish, leaving behind clothes, loved ones, and—in the film’s only poignant touch—their dogs. Pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) has been dallying with flight attendant Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble, who’s married to Cameron), but after this momentous event occurs, he turns the plane around and heads home to check on his churchgoing wife. Too late. She and his son are gone, leaving only college-student daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), who couldn’t possibly be saved—she has a pierced nose.

Although it endorses a universal cosmology, Left Behind caters to provincial Americans’ fear of world government and the Euro. Buck, who knows approximately everyone, is soon tracking a horrible conspiracy to the United Nations, where Russian-accented Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) has just hired Hattie as his personal assistant. Buck needs the help of the newly devout Ray, however, to understand that the strange recent events simply fulfill the prophecies of Revelation and Thessalonians. Accepting Jesus as your personal savior, apparently, is a lot like acquiring a superpower. When Nicolae makes his evil move, Buck is the only guy in the room who understands what really happened.

“I admit this stuff is compelling,” says Buck just before he welcomes Jesus, but it isn’t. Although made cheaply in Canada with a cast of has-beens and unknowns, Left Behind intends to leap the chasm between the Bible Belt and Hollywood. Vic Sarin’s direction is competent, the explosions are credible, and the dialogue (credited to Allan McElroy, Joe Goodman, and co-producer Paul Lalonde) prompts no more giggles than that of, say, Titanic. Still, the movie doesn’t approach the wacked-out imagery of such recent faux-religious apocalyptics as Fallen, Stigmata, or The Matrix. Left Behind makes the end of days look dowdy and dull. The filmmakers can console themselves that they’re telling the Truth, but by demonic-thriller standards, they don’t have the goods. CP