Fall 2006 -- The Lost City. Starring Andy Garcia, Inés Sastre, Tomas Milian, Nestor Carbonell, Enrique Murciano, Bill Murray, Richard Bradford, Jsu Garcia, Millie Perkins, Steven Bauer, Lorena Feijóo, Dustin Hoffman, and Juan Fernández. Screenplay by G. Cabrera Infante. Directed by Andy Garcia. (Magnolia Pictures, 2005, Color, 143 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.)
In his feature-film directorial debut, Andy Garcia uses the screen as his canvas to paint a vibrant and wistful picture of a Havana he never really knew firsthand. In 1961, Garcia’s parents fled the prison that Cuba had become under Fidel Castro. Alarmed at the sight of their five-year-old boy Andrés marching in their front yard and singing the communist hymn The Internationale, they decided to leave Cuba to raise their family in Miami Beach.
The Lost City represents Garcia’s quest of sixteen years to tell this epic story of a Cuban family’s struggle to grapple with the turbulent events of the communist overthrow of strong-arm dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958—events that inevitably tear the family asunder. The film’s dramatic, moving script is the final screenplay penned by the late, legendary Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. An early supporter of the Castro revolution, Infante’s gradual disillusionment with the communist dictator forced him to flee in 1966.
The Lost City revolves around nightclub owner Fico Fellove (Garcia), who runs the El Tropico, the ritziest cabaret in downtown Havana, and his two brothers, Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) and Luis (Nestor Carbonell). The movie opens with an elaborate dance scene onstage at the club, where Fico’s extended family celebrates his parents’ anniversary. But as soon as the camera lurks backstage, the audience discovers that all is not well in the family, nor in Havana.
Fico chooses a life of freedom as a dishwasher in New York over life as a slave in socialist Havana.
Fico’s father, university professor Don Federico—played with great intelligenceby Tomas Milian (one of many Cuban expatriates among the cast and crew)—holds court in Fico’s office, arguing for reasoned, democratic opposition to the brutal Batista regime. But overzealous son Ricardo predicts that a coming revolution will free the oppressed people of Cuba. Heated discussion escalates into a violent confrontation between patriarch and prodigal son, and Fico and Luis have to forcibly restrain their brother. The rift within the family ominously symbolizes the divisions that have broken out in the Fellove’s island paradise, once known as the “Pearl of the Antilles.”
In the tragic saga that chronicles the Fellove family’s dissolution, Fico loses both brothers: Luis is executed by secret police when caught as the ringleader of an assassination attempt on Batista, and Ricardo commits suicide after betraying his family to win favor with the communists. The meaning of the movie’s title emerges as we see what has been lost; the film becomes an elegiac love letter to the graceful and glamorous world in which Fico moves, but which is now slipping through his fingers as the communists impose control over every aspect of Cuban society.
Elaborate musical and dance sequences, featuring the impulsive Afro-Cuban rhythms that define Cuban music, set off the onscreen action. Rumba and mambo show-stoppers make The Lost City the kind of fusion of light entertainment and serious drama that American movie studios have forgotten how to make. But what most grabbed me were the ballet scenes, featuring the lithe agility of dancer Lorena Feijóo, who in real life is principal ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet.
This kind of filmmaking threw many critics for a loop. But for me, The Lost City comes off more like a Bollywood extravaganza than does the mostly anemic “serious” fare Hollywood serves up these days. The most convincing scenes are in the love story between Fico and brother Luis’s aggrieved widow, Aurora, played by the exquisite Inés Sastre. Emmanuel Kadosh’s camera simply loves her serene, alluring beauty: as Fico falls for her, so do all the men in the audience.
Most crucially, Infante and Garcia don’t whitewash or gloss over the true history of Fidel Castro’s tyrannical rise to power: he is shown for exactly the brutal dictator he was and is. One wouldn’t think that actor Jsu Garcia’s portrayal of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a murderous goon—rather than as the Martyred Saint of the People—would be controversial almost forty years after his death, but it has caused The Lost City to be banned in many Latin American countries.
Although uneven in a couple of scenes, the film overall is gripping and beautifully made, full of forceful, evocative performances that would make any new director proud. In a memorable cameo, Dustin Hoffman nails gangster Meyer Lansky’s quietly menacing demeanor. Fans of The Incredibles’ sultry “Mirage” character will get a glimpse of actress Elizabeth Peña playing a communist bureaucrat who threatens to shut down Fico’s nightclub, unless he removes the orchestra’s saxophone (“an instrument of imperialist oppression”). Bill Murray provides comic relief as “the Writer,” an obvious stand-in for novelist Infante. Some of his jokes fall flat, but altogether he injects a sense of uneasiness that foreshadows the beginning of the end for Fico’s fortunes.
Panning of this film was likely rooted more in politics rather than aesthetics.
Emmanuel Kadosh’s vibrant cinematography bathes the screen in rich hues reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ Technicolor prints of The Godfather, Part II (also filmed in the Dominican Republic). Production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and art director Carlos Menéndez re-create a rich, elegant Havana, adding first-rate production values to this low-budgeted movie.
Oddly, The Lost City was panned by most critics in the U.S., presumably for its length and uneven execution. However, after reading many of the reviews, I suspect more than just a little opposition to be rooted in politics rather than aesthetics. Typical of the reviews was Stephen Holden’s in the New YorkTimes:
The impoverished masses of Cubans who embraced Castro as a liberator appear only in grainy, black-and-white news clips, awkwardly shoehorned into the movie to fill in historical blanks, and in some buffoonish parodies of sour Communist apparatchiks barking orders once Mr. Castro takes over.
Almost fifty years after Castro seized power and turned Cuba into a death camp and a sewer, its suffering captives still risk shark-infested waters and treacherous currents to reach the freedom of America’s shores. Yet to many American Baby Boomers, nostalgic over the red “Che” t-shirts of their pampered college years, the nightmare reality just ninety miles from American shores might as well be invisible.
Earlier this summer, when the aging Castro went under the knife and, for the first time, temporarily relinquished power to his brother Raul, you could witness more accurately what Cuba’s muzzled masses probably felt: thousands of Cuban-Americans of all ages and incomes filled downtown Miami, celebrating Fidel’s impending demise, waving Cuban and American flags, literally dancing in the streets.
In The Lost City, this same spirit moves Fico Fellove, who chooses to live and work alone in poverty and freedom, as a dishwasher in New York City, rather than as a slave in the socialist “paradise” of Havana:
I can’t go back. It’s too dangerous…for my soul. I have no money. But here, I feel as though I’m worth more than I ever was.