Born in 1943, Reinaldo Arenas is taken by his single-parent mother to live with relatives in rural Cuba. Although he grows up in poverty, he is free there to express his sensitive soul in the poems he etches on trees. Gazing at some nude young men in a swimming hole, Reinaldo realizes his sexual orientation at an early age. Eventually, he leaves home to join the rebels fighting against the government. By the time he arrives in Havana, their leader, Fidel Castro, is riding high in triumph.
Reinaldo (Javier Bardem) meets Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a bisexual wheeler dealer with a convertible and plenty of cash. He soon becomes his lover and Pepe sets him up in a comfortable place. Entering a literary competition, Reinaldo wins honorable mention. A patron of the arts takes an interest in him and helps him publish his first novel, Singing from the Well.
As the years pass, the Castro regime becomes more oppressive focusing its strong arm tactics on "undesirables." Arrested on false charges of molesting several boys, Reinaldo escapes from prison and makes an unsuccessful attempt to float to Florida on an inner tube. He eventually lands in jail again but survives by writing letters for the many illiterate prisoners.
His next novel is smuggled out of the country by a French couple who see that it is printed overseas. Once the authorities discover this, Reinaldo is imprisoned again and lands in solitary confinement. When his spirit is finally broken, he signs a full confession of all his wrongdoings in front of a sinister lieutenant (Johnny Depp). Seizing the moment in 1980, the exhausted and embittered writer heads to America when the Castro regime issues an amnesty to homosexuals, the mentally ill, and everyone with a criminal record. In New York, Reinaldo succumbs to AIDS and is carried through his period of suffering by Lázaro Gomes Garriles (Olivier Martinez), a close friend.
This touching screen adaptation of the autobiography of gay Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas convincingly shows how freedom is the air that writers must breathe in order to fully express their creative souls. That, of course, is also the theme in writer and director Julian Schnabel's last film, Basquiat, the portrait of a controversial New York artist. This drama contains many innovative visual techniques and a vibrant musical soundtrack by Carter Burwell.
The DVD includes an audio commentary with director Julian Schnabel, Javier Bardem, screenwriter Lazaro Gomez Carriles, among others. Another section of "documentary shorts" contains footage of an interview with Reinaldo Arenas in which he discusses his experiences in Cuba, and a behind-the-scenes look at the locations for the film and the antics of the director and star. Finally, a featurette about Schnabel's paintings and sculptures gives another view of the director.