As a movie biography, "Before Night Falls" fails because it tells us nearly nothing about its subject, the late writer Reinaldo Arenas, or why he was so important to the Cuban arts scene.
And the film doesn't do any better as a compelling cinematic story because it wastes so much time establishing mood and showcasing artistic imagery that it never manages to establish whether this is supposed to be a truthful version of real-life events or a more fanciful, dramatized one.
In fact, with its odd celebrity cameos (including Johnny Depp and Sean Penn), the film almost resembles Jim Jarmusch's oddity "Dead Man" and that bit of "stunt casting" didn't even work in that surrealistic fantasy, so you can imagine how it might go over in something like this.
However, where the film actually does succeed is as a showcase for one man, Spanish actor Javier Bardem, whose riveting performance as Arenas helps compensate for the filmmaking and storytelling deficits.
The movie traces the beginnings of his writing career, as teenage Arenas (played by Vito Maria Schnabel, the son of the film's director, Julian Schnabel) is encouraged to enter contests by sympathetic instructors.
Unfortunately, most of the writing he produces is a little too controversial for the judges, though there are some who recognize his talent and urge him to continue writing, regardless of the results.
At the same time, he's encouraged to experiment with his sexuality, first with the volatile Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano), who introduces him to the country's thriving gay subculture.
Both that and his art get him into trouble with the Cuban government, which is cracking down on homosexuals, as well as other artists whose work isn't nearly as inflammatory as his.
In fact, they're trying to make it impossible for him to get his writings published, which forces Arenas to smuggle them out of the country though the consequences of defiance may be worse than what he can endure.
It's clear that filmmaker Schabel (who also made the similarly undeveloped "Basquiat" in 1996) has chosen to depict events in the same dreamy, half-in-reality, half-out-of-reality style that Arenas favored in his writings. But what works on the printed page doesn't always work as well on celluloid.
Then there's the film's rather simplistic look at Cuban politics (socioeconomically, artistically and sexually), which doesn't do any of the subjects justice and which robs the material of its potential power.
That's why it's fortunate that the film has Bardem ("Mouth to Mouth," "Live Flesh"), who is very believable as Arenas and makes him as sympathetic a character as he can be, in spite of the rather sketchy characterization (by Schnabel and two other screenwriters).
"Before Night Falls" is rated R for full male and some female nudity, violence (beatings and some gunfire), scattered strong profanity, simulated gay sex, simulated drug use (marijuana) and some crude sexual discussions and use of sexual slang terms. Running time: 133 minutes.