Before Night Falls — drunk on sex, freedom and the leaping joy of artistic creation — tells the story of Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), the Cuban novelist and poet. Tormented by AIDS and political persecution, Arenas died by his own hand in 1990, an exile in New York. Directing his second film, following 1996’s Basquiat, the artist Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the script based on Arenas’ memoir, paints a vivid screen portrait of creative and carnal awakening. The liberating energy of pre-Castro Cuba is brought to scintillating life, in contrast to the later scenes of incarceration where Arenas is victimized as a gay man and a writer. Schnabel draws nuanced work from a large cast, including a roguish Johnny Depp in a dual role as a transvestite who smuggles Arenas’ pages out of prison in his rectum and as an officer who blackmails him sexually. But Bardem is the film’s glory. Best known for such Spanish films as Live Flesh, Bardem explodes onscreen in a breakthrough performance that ranks with the year’s best. In uniting to honor Arenas, Bardem and Schnabel create something extraordinary.