In 1972 Miguel Piñero was a 25-year-old Puerto Rican-born New Yorker serving a jail sentence for second-degree robbery. Two years later, he was catapulted to literary fame with the production of his first play, "Short Eyes," a graphic portrayal of life, love and death among prison inmates. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and was subsequently made into a film. A poet as well as a playwright, Piñero helped create the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in an East Village storefront. His influence as a pioneering voice for Latino artistic expression ran parallel to his unrepentant relish for narcotics, impulsive crime, transgressive sex and other forms of bad behavior. By 1988 he was dead, of cirrhosis of the liver.

Now this short, fiery life blazes again on-screen in "Piñero," which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 14. The movie was written and directed by Leon Ichaso, the 52-year-old Cuban-born filmmaker best known for features chronicling Latino culture ("El Super," "Crossover Dreams") and television biographies of counterculture icons ("Hendrix," "Ali: An American Hero"). The title role is played by Benjamin Bratt in a startling performance that will undoubtedly inspire a major revision of his current public image as Detective Rey Curtis on "Law and Order" and Julia Roberts's ex-boyfriend.

In the theater world, Miguel Piñero's reputation rests on "Short Eyes," which portrays a white middle-class child molester thrown into contact with black and Latino inmates awaiting trial. The script, which originated in a prison writing workshop, got rave reviews. "This is a play that kicks and hurts," Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times. When the theater impresario Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin in the movie) saw the play at Riverside Church, he decided to move it to the Public Theater and then to Broadway, where it received six Tony Award nominations.

While his subsequent plays were produced at the Public and Theater for a New City, Piñero also won acclaim for the kind of incantatory streetwise versifying later popularized in poetry slams and by truth- telling rappers like Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur. Tracing his career, "Piñero" captures a cultural landscape unlike that of today, when successful writers are more likely to emerge from M.F.A. programs than from the street and even voices from marginal cultures are snapped up, admired to death and absorbed into corporate blandness with blinding speed.

Mr. Ichaso first got the idea for a movie about Piñero in 1993, when he was shooting "Sugar Hill," a film about a Harlem heroin dealer played by Wesley Snipes. At dinner, cast and crew members would trade stories about Piñero, who was nothing if not a memorable character. "Everyone you meet who knew Piñero got pleasantly ripped off or hustled or enchanted or taught a lesson about the street," Mr. Ichaso recalled recently in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he's filming an episode of the PBS series "American Family."

To do preliminary research about Piñero, the director met with Miguel Algarin, the only surviving member of the original Nuyorican Poets Cafe — the others were murdered or died in jail or of AIDS — and began to collect colorful stories. (Mr. Algarin, played in the film by Giancarlo Esposito, also appears briefly as a speaker at Piñero's memorial service.)

Mr. Ichaso soon became obsessed with the unusual content and quality of Piñero's writing. "I became very interested in the forgotten work; I knew he was going to fall through the cracks," he said. "Piñero was definitely influenced by the Beat poets, Kerouac, Amiri Baraka and the precursors of today`s rappers: the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Felipe Luciano. A lot of his work was built around the conditions of the ghetto and the sociopolitical atmosphere that blacks and Latinos absorbed in jail. Remember, he was fighting the incredible wave of mediocrity that the 70's were. He didn't have a little chain around his neck with a coke spoon. He wasn't dancing at Studio 54. He was doing poetry and theater, spoken word. If he would have just done it a little later, today every tooth in his mouth would be gold, and he'd be best friends with Puffy Combs."

Writing the screenplay, Mr. Ichaso grafted passages from the plays and the poetry onto scenes from Piñero's life, moving back and forth in time. He wrote some scenes to be shot in black and white, to create a disjointed, disordered aesthetic and to suggest subliminally the Beat period of jazz poetry readings at San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore. During the actual filming, though, he wound up shooting many scenes in both black-and-white film and color digital video. "A very unusual structure developed that suited a very unusual guy without a structure," he said.

Early in the development of the project, Mr. Ichaso said, he had a meeting with the writer and performer John Leguizamo about his taking the leading role. "I mentioned Piñero, and he dropped the fork from his hand," Mr. Ichaso recalled. "He said: `That's mine! I want that!' " "Piñero was one of my writing idols," Mr. Leguizamo said in an interview in New York, where he is appearing on Broadway in his solo performance "Sexaholix . . . A Love Story." "He took Latin street culture and put it into poetry. He documented our spirit. The whole era of Nuyorican poets was an inspiration to me when I was 19 and 20. We're in a pop era now. Everything is fast, easy, downloadable. Back then they took the time to dig in and find great words to say deep things."

Mr. Leguizamo became an executive producer on the film, spending a year and a half helping Mr. Ichaso develop the script and get financing. Ultimately, though, he walked away from acting in the movie. "Leon told the real exact story of Piñero, but it was a little too real for me," Mr. Leguizamo said. "I'd like to play him as a Latin hero, but he'd have to be a little less disgusting. I can't forgive him for some of the things he did."

What Mr. Leguizamo objected to was the depiction of sex between adults and minors. The movie includes a scene in which it may seem that a pubescent Piñero is being sexually exploited by an older man in a movie theater. But Mr. Ichaso suggests that in reality it was the other way around. "Mikey and his friends started hustling when they were 13 or 14, at the movie theaters on 42nd Street that cost 50 cents," he said. "That was the place to make a buck. Later on he had a taste for street kids who were very much the way he'd been. He got into trouble once for picking the wrong boy, an Italian teenager who wanted to emulate the outlaw picture Piñero presented. Somebody put a contract out on him, and Joe Papp had to put him on a train to Philadelphia to get him out of town."

In addition to portraying the artist as outlaw poet and drug-crazed sybarite, "Piñero" is a subversive portrait of Latino male sexuality, portraying the subject's fluid sexual identity with unusual candor. In the film, Piñero lives with a woman, dates a transvestite and has a steamy relationship with his protégé Reinaldo Povod, the young playwright whose 1986 play, "Cuba and His Teddy Bear," starred Robert De Niro. Mr. Ichaso said: "What fascinated me about Piñero was if you called him gay, he'd kill you. For Latino men, the stigma around homosexuality is horrible. We're loaded with a front to live up to. Most of all, if you're a badass, it makes it harder to turn around and kiss a man."

After Mr. Leguizamo bowed out of the film, Mr. Ichaso sent the script to a number of actors, including Benicio Del Toro, Marc Anthony and Johnny Depp. When Benjamin Bratt's name came up, the director said, "I thought he'd be totally wrong for the job."

"He was too clean, too pretty, too West Coast," Mr. Ichaso said. "But he was the first one to say, `I'm not your man.' Which immediately brought out a curiosity: who is this guy? I looked at a film he'd done called `Follow Me Home,' directed by his brother, Peter, where he portrayed a down-and-out mural painter in East L.A. He had false teeth, shaved head, tattoos — I caught a glimpse of where he could go."

Mr. Bratt, speaking by phone from San Francisco, said: "There were a couple of reasons I knew I wasn't the right guy: the cover page of the script was a Xeroxed photo of the man, who was probably a foot shorter than I am. He was an East Coast Puerto Rican, and I'm West Coast, of Peruvian descent. There was also some level of fear. Much as actors seek out roles that are challenging, I was afraid that if I failed, the failure would be eternal. Film is different from theater that way.

"But I couldn't let it go," he continued. "The musicality of the language, the sheer volume of these words — I wanted to say those words."

For an actor accustomed to Hollywood features and television shows, the five-week shooting schedule and $1.2 million budget for "Piñero" was a challenge. "Running and gunning, grabbing shots when they're not necessarily planned, shooting on digital video — I knew it would be a down- and-dirty process," Mr. Bratt said. "I thrived on that."

Mr. Ichaso is no stranger to the world of low-budget cinema. He made his first film, "El Super" (directed with his brother-in-law, the documentary filmmaker Orlando Leal), for less than $10,000. The story of Cuban exiles in New York was very familiar to him. "I was born in Havana," he said. "My father was a well-known Cuban poet, Justo Rodriguez Santos, who died in 1999. He belonged to a very important group of poets, including Lezama Lima, who was a character in `Before Night Falls.' He stayed in Cuba till the revolution kicked his ass, when he became a nonperson and his poetry was banned. I moved to Miami with my mother in 1963, when I was 14. I came to New York, where I worked as a busboy at Max's Kansas City and left high school in 1967. I do time in L.A., but I still keep my rent- controlled apartment."

After "El Super," he worked on "Saturday Night Live" and developed "Crossover Dreams," which starred the Panamanian-born music star Ruben Blades. Like "Piñero," the film offers a savvy portrait of the Nuyorican experience in the 1970's. In 1996, Mr. Ichaso made his third feature as writer and director, another film about Cuba called "Azucar Amarga (Bitter Sugar)," about a young couple, an underemployed psychiatrist and a man with AIDS all chafing under the restrictions of the Castro regime. He was able to shoot part of the film in Havana, he said, by pretending to do a documentary about Caribbean architecture.

Mr. Ichaso clearly identified with Miguel Piñero as an artist, as a Latino with a very specific cultural heritage and as a connoisseur of life experience. As Benjamin Bratt observed about the director: "He had a clear understanding of the subject matter. Nothing about it was foreign for him." And certainly he shares with his subject a knack for doing what it takes to get by.

To subsidize his taste for making stylish, highly personal films, Mr. Ichaso has spent many years directing TV series ("Miami Vice," "Crime Story," "The Equalizer"), television adaptations of stage plays ("Zooman," "Execution of Justice") and formulaic features ("Sugar Hill," "Free of Eden"). He called this balancing act "the John Cassavetes way: you do this one for money and live in purgatory while you're planning your next film for yourself, the one you have some feelings for." He doesn't seem to resent the trade-off. "It's healthy," he said. "You get a lot of work done that way."

New York Times, December 2, 2001