To leave or not to leave weighs heavy on the denizens of “The Lost City,” actor-director Andy Garcia’s melancholic ode to his native Cuba during the revolutionary late-1950s. On and off drawing boards for nearly two decades, this longtime dream project for Garcia and late novelist-critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who died in February) emerges as a handsomely produced, deeply passionate, but seriously flawed historical epic whose reach far exceeds its grasp. Somewhere inside this overlong, sometimes engaging, often tedious affair, there may be a solid, 100-minute movie, which Garcia and an enterprising distributor might be advised to find before braving commercial waters.
Given its dramatic potential, the story of Cuba on the doorstep of Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution has been notoriously ill-served by movies, with two high-profile Hollywood endeavors — Richard Lester’s “Cuba” and Sydney Pollack’s “Havana” — employing the events of 1958 as little more than an exotic backdrop for sudsy romantic melodrama.
From the start, “The Lost City” positions itself as a more serious-minded endeavor. Set in and around the cosmopolitan Havana cabaret scene, pic’s action unfolds largely within the El Tropico nightclub, whose apolitical owner, Fico Fellove (Garcia), strives to use his popular business as a buffer from the winds of historical change — winds that Fico’s father (Tomas Milian), a distinguished Havana U. professor, dismisses.
Fico’s brothers, however, feel the revolutionary fire in their veins. In one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, Luis (Nestor Carbonell) takes part in an ill-fated raid on the presidential palace. Later, Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) heads into the jungles to fight alongside Castro and Che. And of course there is a woman, Aurora (played by supermodel Ines Sastre), who begins as Luis’ wife but ends up in Fico’s arms.
In the final analysis, “The Lost City” is only a marginally more meaningful Cuba film than its superficial Hollywood predecessors. Like Fico, Garcia has a tremendous sense of showmanship, and his movie is piled high with exuberant musical numbers that flood the screen with color, plus a raft of big-star cameos from the likes of Dustin Hoffman (as Meyer Lansky) and Bill Murray (as an expat American comedy writer whose acerbic personality is said to have been modeled on Infante himself).
But Garcia spends so much time on those scenes that he loses track of his main characters, and the more “The Lost City” goes on, the more narrowly it focuses on Fico and his club to the exclusion of other family members and even the revolution. There are no shots of the poverty-stricken workers whose plight was the impetus for the revolt. It’s as though Garcia had started out trying to make the Cuban equivalent of “The Godfather” and ended up settling for “The Cotton Club” instead.
What keeps “The Lost City” afloat is the commitment of the enterprise. Garcia has given better performances, and, as a director, he still has much to learn about where to put the camera, but his heartfelt drive to make the project happen (which ended up meaning on a much smaller budget and shooting schedule than the screenplay demanded) spills forth.
Garcia is also to be lauded for taking a political stance — which is to say, regarding Batista, Che and Castro with equal contempt — that could make him unpopular in certain circles. Good intentions, though, still only count for so much — especially when the climactic revolution occurs and the movie still has nearly 45 minutes left to go.
While there are traces in Infante’s screenplay of the writer’s famously felicitous wordplay (“Havana is no longer a capital city, but a capital sin,” the Fellove patriarch remarks at one point), there are also a number of instances in which the characters speechify pedantically.
Also, while pic’s press notes make much of Garcia’s scrupulous music supervision, selecting songs intended to match characters for instance, that hard work will be lost on non-Spanish-speaking audiences, given that none of the song lyrics have been subtitled into English.
Shot in the Dominican Republic, a frequent movie substitute for Cuba, pic’s design elements are strong, though Emmanuel Kadosh’s lensing is largely flat and overlit.