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Biopics about writers don't come along often--Zola, Burroughs, a few
others. Perhaps the reason lies in the difficulty of translating into film terms a process
that is essentially internal. A painter can be observed painting, a dancer, dancing.
Composers at least get to have triumphant performances of their works. Writers sit at
their typewriters or computers, and then the book comes out. In and of itself, the process
does not have the makings of high drama.
Director Julian Schnabel, whose first film was based on the life of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, returns with a biography of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), a gay Cuban novelist and poet. Arenas was born into rural poverty and never knew his father. He attended university in Havana and then worked in the national library. His first novel won honorable mention in a competition and was published in Cuba. But Arenas attracted unfavorable attention from the authorities. "People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship," his mentor warns him, "Artists are counterrevolutionaries."
In a dreamy scene of workers bathing nude in a river, Schnabel shows that, even as a boy in Oriente province, Arenas was attracted to men. When a teacher reports to his family that he has a sensitivity for poetry, Arenas' grandfather goes into a rage; Arenas learned early about gender prejudice in the macho Cuban value system. During his university years, he overcame his own initial resistance and became an active participant in gay life. While the early years of the Cuban revolution saw a corresponding sexual revolution, it turned out that "the revolution wasn't for everybody." Gays were subjected to the whims of intrusive authorities, violence, and detention camps.
Seen as dangerous because of his writing, Arenas' gay life made him easily vulnerable to persecution. He was confined for several years in prison and detention camps and then, in 1980,