The Lost City

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In 1890, José Martí, exiled Cuban poet, philosopher, and statesman crafted his most famous poem, Los versos sencillos, in the Catskill mountains of New York state.  More than a century later, those verses close out, in voice over, exiled Cuban actor Andy García’s cinematic homage to the faint memories he holds of the homeland he fled at age six. Would that García had matched Martí’s deft touch and sharpness of intellect.

The Lost City, which García directed, tells the story of Fico Fellove (García), the oldest of three sons of an aged professor and patriarch (Tomás Milian), in Havana in the late 1950s. As the country barrels towards revolution, the Felloves find themselves involved in various degrees and on various sides, with Fico trying to maintain his status quo inside the fancy nightclub he owns, El Trópico.  He attempts to appease and stave off the predatory government of Fulgencio Batista and save his recklessly revolutionary siblings until the revolution succeeds and he then has to battle the uber-sarcastic and -sadistic representatives of the new government.

The films looks beautiful, thanks in great part to the cinematography of Emmanuel Kadosh (Modigliani), the production design of Waldemar Kalinowski, and the costumes of Academy Award-winner Deborah Lynn Scott (Titanic). The story is mostly engaging and the acting — by a largely Cuban-exile and Cuban-American cast — mostly solid. Milian stands out, as does Jsu García’s lively portrayal of el Che. Nestor Carbonell is soft, mysterious, and strong as Luis Fellove, and Enrique Murciano does decent work as brother Ricardo, becoming much more interestingly animalistic when he returns from the Sierra Maestra. The gorgeous Inés Sastre does her best work when she doesn’t try to do any. García does his usual, stoic stuff as Fico, though I kept seeing flashes of him as a Corleone throughout the film. And of course Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray liven things up as mob boss Meyer Lansky and The Writer, respectively. Really, who let Murray loose on this set? He positively crackles as some sort of carefree Hunter S. Thompson (whom he once played) and seems to get screenwriter Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s sarcasm better even than García.

The problems arise, then, in content, in the director’s execution of his vision. It seems that García, according to his statements in the extras on the DVD of The Lost City, intended his film to serve as a vehicle of remembrance, a cinematic incarnation of the mind and heart of the exile, of the immigrant. With music serving as García’s own tie to his family’s past, he attempts to weave musical performances into his epic tale of an upper-class Cuban family on the eve of Cuba’s revolution. Somehow, the frequent scenes of Afro-Cubans dancing and singing don’t come off as tokenized stereotype as they do in most of their incarnations. But they don’t work in the way García intended. The sense of García’s nostalgia doesn’t enter the film soon enough to pull off his intended effect. This is not an elegiac piece about remembrance. The Lost City comes off as a drama about politics and Cuban history, and, in that, it ultimately fails because of its incompleteness.

Any film about Cuba as an entity — and The Lost City certainly is that — must deal with politics, and García does a mostly good job of avoiding a propagandistic approach. His real message seems to be that any oppressive regime, any government that intrudes on the happiness of its people, must change or be endured, regardless of ideology.  But this assumes that people are inherently happy until the government intervenes. This certainly holds true for the wealthy Fellove clan. But not once does García show the oppression and desperate poverty, suffered by so much of the Cuban population, that spurred the revolution and its wild reception by the populace, which therefore seems so baffling in the film. It’s tough to pity Fico’s uncle Donoso when he bellows his protest to Castro’s government’s demand to nationalize his tobacco plantation because such farms dominated the countryside with a sort of feudal system that held the majority of workers in poverty for hundreds of years. Even Lansky’s intrusion sheds no light on the plundering of the country by the USA that Batista gladly traded for dominion over the nation. The critique of the revolutionaries, though certainly welcome and necessary, adds to the incompleteness of the picture. Certainly Fidel’s intentions remain dubious, and his oppression of dissent was real and cruel, but could his band of 18 men who survived the Granma landing really have conquered the country if thousands of people had not supported revolt?

As a former revolutionary who died in exile this past year, Cuban novelist and film critic Cabrera Infante was a great choice to write this piece. Perhaps if García could have animated the entirety of Cabrera Infante’s original 300-page screenplay the important political nuances would not have failed to appear. But the film’s view of Cuba is narrow-sighted at best. It shows the requisite shots of El Malecón and El Moro, gorgeous beaches and elegant villas. In such an atmosphere, revolution could seem nothing but ghastly. The film has a nicely Cuban touch when revolutionary emissaries come to El Trópico and demand Fico stop the use of the “imperialist” saxophone. Cabrera’s sense of the absurdity of this type of dictatorial logic is impeccable and recalls a slew of Cuban films as well as Virgilio Piñera’s pre-revolution play Jesús.  But not a single one of the revolutionaries in the film — including Che Guevara — comes off as anything but glibly cruel and stupid. Batista may look preening and removed and his thugs, well, thuggish, but the bearded ones are tyrants from the start. Perhaps Cabrera’s full script would have better shown the slide from optimistic and altruistic revolution into cynical and oppressive regime. The Lost City does not.  Veracity emerges only after Fico arrives in New York City. His exchanging villas for a dingy hotel room and his white tuxedo for a dishwasher’s apron finally touch on the dismal life of the immigrant. We get to see the cruel division erected between loved ones by U.S.-Cuban politics,  and the true sense of nostalgia sets into the film. When Fico finally watches the home movies he has recorded throughout the film, the audience sees immediately the contrast between his past life and his present. And when he steps into this movies, onto the sweeping staircase of his memory, García gleams like I’ve never seen him. The last few minutes of the film could replace the entire piece as the actor, the exile, stands in his own thoughts with his beloved music playing for him, gleefully experiencing the passion that drove him through the 16 years of making The Lost City. No more acting, no more Bogart-ing it. Now it makes sense. Now García has made his tribute.

Perhaps The Lost City should have started with Fico’s leaving, so that García could show, instead of his fanciful memories, the actual act of remembering that is his real experience. Then we could try to forgive the patchiness of his remembrances.

As the exiled Cuban rappers Orishas have sung: “desde lo profundo de mi corazón siento nostalgia/Una extraña sensación como añoranza”. (From the depths of my heart I feel nostalgia/A strange sensation like añoranza.) English doesn’t really have a word for añoranza. It’s longing but deeper, more sad, more painful. A nostalgic director makes a bad film. But a man experiencing his añoranza makes for a powerful sight.

“I don’t think the book on The Lost City will ever be closed,” García says in the making-of section of the DVD. I hope he’s right. I hope he finds a way to complete The Lost City — or to cut it into the experience he really wants it to be, a film not blinded by the man’s distance from that lost city but enhanced by it. That way, as Martí wished to, García could hurl the verses of his soul into the world.