Pinero

on December 14, 2001 by Susan Green
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   Driven by beatnik sensibilities, Latino rhythms and junkie reverie, poet/playwright/actor Miguel Pinero was only 40 when he died in 1988, leaving behind an impassioned body of work. Leon Ichaso's "Pinero" is an impressionist memoir reminiscent of "Basquiat," which profiled a similarly doomed painter. Movies about creative people who self-destruct invite paradox: We are both repulsed and fascinated by their flirtation with the abyss.

   In a career-making performance, Benjamin Bratt inhabits the title role with mesmerizing fury. Pinero's internal muse drinks from a bottomless well of anger and pain, periodically relieved by his wry sense of humor. Born in Puerto Rico, he's raised by a single mother (Rita Moreno) in New York, where the streets claim him at an early age through crime and same-sex-for-sale. Heroin takes hold of him in jail, where he also discovers his considerable talent for the written and spoken word.

   Although Ichaso ("Bitter Sugar") penned intriguing dialogue, the script's non-linear structure is almost hallucinogenic. Constantly alternating black-and-white cinematography with color, the film visits Pinero in Sing Sing, then reciting poetry at the Nuyorican Café he co-founded in lower Manhattan. Suddenly, he's back in the same prison or shooting up in some filthy drug den. This non-chronological approach also makes it hard to sort out his friends (Giancarlo Esposito as mentor Miguel Algarin, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Wright) and lovers (Talisa Soto, Michael Irby). Hollywood comes calling in 1979 for a cinematic version of his most successful play, "Short Eyes," but Ichaso's relentless pace obscures its significance.

   In decline, Pinero betrays those who nurtured him. His relationship with Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) is particularly volatile in this harrowing portrait of a complex artist. Starring Benjamin Bratt, Giancarlo Esposito, Rita Moreno, Talisa Soto, Mandy Patinkin, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Knight, Michael Irby, Miguel Algarin and Griffin Dunne. Directed and written by Leon Ichaso. Produced by John Penotti, Fisher Stevens and Tim Williams. A Miramax release. Biographical drama. Rated R for drug use, strong language and sexuality. Running time: 102 min

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