The Lost City

2007-02-09 18:10

It is 1958 and Havana is at the height of its beauty – a place of wealth, style, learning and, above all, fabulous music. Fico Fellove (Andy Garcia) owns the city's premier nightclub, El Tropico, and he and his family enjoy a position of privilege and respect. But the spectre of revolution is looming larger with every day that the brutal dictator, Fulgencio Batista (Juan Fernández), remains in power. To his dismay Fico finds that both his brothers are involved in the revolution, and that he is powerless to stop his family, or his country, being torn apart.


There’s something deeply old-fashioned about The Lost City, and not just because it’s set nearly 50 years ago. For all its Latin flamboyance, there’s a starchy formality to the movie that makes it feel more like a contemporary of Casablanca than Crash. Yet it has one ingredient that is impossible to buy or fake – love – and this elevates it above the mundane.

Like its main character, The Lost City is a deeply affectionate creature. It spends a significant amount of time kissing, cuddling and fussing over the object of its affection, regardless of how many times it has been disappointed. But at least in the case of Fico the affection is requited – his family return the love he showers on them. The Lost City has a far more capricious lover – Cuba itself – which greets its advances with nothing but indifference.

Not that Cuba doesn’t put on a good show for us. Director (and star) Andy Garcia and his crew have conjured up a vivid picture of this once delightful island paradise. The scenery and architecture is as beautiful as the people, and the nightlife is as vibrant as any metropolis, but it is the music that really steals the show.

A musician himself, Garcia has made the music of Cuba into more than a soundtrack – it is the beat to which the entire film sways. From mambo to cha cha cha to bolero, and even pulsing Afro-Cuban rhythms, the movie celebrates a rich musical heritage that is still influencing musicians around the world to this day. It even dares to feature a Benny Moré impersonator who does an excellent job of conjuring up the greatest of all Cuban singers.

And yet, for all its beauty and vibrancy, we can feel the tragedy of this story right from the first second. As we watch Fico’s brothers prepare to do battle with Batista’s regime, we know it can only end one way. The same is true of the revolution itself. Many of the characters may be convinced that Castro will liberate them from tyranny, but we already know better.

As such there’s a streak of cynicism running through The Lost City. It paints political figures on both sides of the conflict – Batista and Che Guevara (excellently portrayed by Jsu Garcia) – as callous, brutal and self-serving. For the film’s screenwriter, the celebrated Cuban author G. Cabrera Infante, politics is only measured by its end results, not its high ideals.

Infante himself appears in the movie, in the guise of a nameless jester played to perfection by the inimitable Bill Murray. While the character adds some much-needed levity to this otherwise serious film, it’s usually more bizarre and discordant than effective. The same can be said for an equally weird cameo by Dustin Hoffman as a mobster named Meyer Lansky.

To have actors of this calibre heading up the comic relief may be effective, but it is also very distracting. Their portrayals are completely out of synch with the rest of the acting, which tends towards stiff formality. Both modes are believable and charming in their own way, but trying to mix them only reduces their effectiveness.

The same can be said of the film’s action, which tends to sprawl haphazardly across themes. It wants to be a family drama, a love story, a political satire and a historical record, but the arc of the story simply can’t support all its ambitions. As a result the film sometimes drags, particularly when it comes to the rather perfunctory love affair between Fico and his brother's widow (played by the intoxicating Inés Sastre).

And yet the The Lost City is always far more of a joy than a chore. For all its stagy formality, there’s a deep passion beneath the surface that fills this homage with colour and life. As we watch old Havana begin to collapse in on itself, we get just an inkling of how exiles like Garcia must feel about this once glorious city. As Dustin Hoffman’s character remarks: “Ahh, Havana. She was a beautiful thing. We should have known she wouldn’t last.”

- Alistair Fairweather
Andy Garcia makes his directorial debut with this deeply personal account of a family torn apart by the Cuban revolution. It's occasionally corny, often flamboyant, but always completely sincere.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.