While mythologizing their own revolution, Americans have an ambivalent relationship to those of other nations. So it is with trepidation that one goes to see an American version of the life of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who grew up in the Revolution and then emigrated to the US in the 1980s to avoid homophobic persecution. As it happens, artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel (of Basquiat fame) doesn’t take a clear line on the Cuban Revolution, opting instead for a focus on Arenas’s struggles as an artist.
Born in 1943, Arenas came from dire poverty. At 15 he joined the Revolution and then moved to Havana to pursue his love of writing while working in the National Library. Following from Arenas’s memoir, Schnabel depicts the artistic community in Havana, its cross-overs with the nascent gay community and the persecution of both by the revolutionary government.
For a few years Arenas was able to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba for publication in France. But in the 1970s he was prosecuted on trumped-up charges of paedophilia and incarcerated. Taking advantage of a government attempt to purge the population of gays and criminals, Arenas acquired an exit visa in the early 1980s and headed to New York to taste sexual freedom.
Arenas’s final decade is condensed into a few symbolic images. The first euphoric image of New York has Arenas riding through the city in the back of a convertible with a carload of friends revelling in the falling snow. But this taste of freedom is short-lived. New York isn’t exactly paradise for immigrants. He becomes sick with an HIV-related illness almost as soon as he arrives and then is callously sent home from hospital because he doesn’t have health insurance; the final cynical irony comes when he finds his end at the bottom of a plastic I Love NY bag. As Arenas puts it, the difference between the capitalist and communist systems is that in the capitalist system you can scream.