Looking Back at Havana
It took Andy Garcia 16 years to make his heart movie The Lost City. With a screenplay by Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Garcia as actor, director and the one responsible for most of the music in the film, this motion picture definitely paints an interesting and historical portrait of Havana, Cuba, in the late 1950s.
Fico Fellove (Garcia) owns El Tropico, a very popular nightclub. It’s a wonderful place frequented by many of Havana’s upper crust who want to hear Cuban music and performers like Beny More. Vaudeville acts also entertain during the singing and dancing. In addition, Fico’s family members often come together at El Tropico to enjoy their relationships and catch up on their lives.
All the while listening intently, Fico never lets his eyes leave lovely Leonela (Lorena Feijóo), the nightclub’s elegant dancer who becomes his girlfriend. As Fico and Leonela become close, Cuba is at the commencement of a revolution. The dictator Batista is pushing his agenda in every area of his country, and the reign of terror spreads quickly. Fico’s own family begins to deteriorate as they choose opposite sides, and he endeavors to be a peacekeeper and keep them from harm.
As hard as he tries, Fico cannot change the way his brothers think. The family dinner is every week at six on Sundays -- “and not one minute later,” says his father Federico Fellove (Tomas Milian), a respected university professor. But these dinners soon have one vacant chair after another.
Fico discovers that his youngest brother Luis (Nestor Carbonell) is a supporter of Che Guevara (Jsu Garcia) and the insurrection he advocates. Later, Fico’s brother Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) displays odd behavior, disappearing for days. Although Ricardo’s wife Aurora (Ines Sastre) believes another woman is the cause, Fico learns it’s because of his brother’s involvement in the revolutionary movement against Batista.
When El Tropico is invaded and Leonela is shot, it’s the first inkling for Fico that the world as he knows it is changing. He begins a passionate affair with Ricardo's wife, Aurora (Ines Sastre), sometime after Ricardo is killed in a failed invasion on Batista’s home. Shortly after Batista flees the country, Castro takes over, with more controls and less freedoms. The El Tropico is ordered closed. Luis informs his uncle Donoso (Richard Bradford) that his tobacco plantation is being seized by the government, which causes Donoso to have a heart attack and die.
With the blessings of his father and mother Dona Cecelia (Millie Perkins), Fico realizes he must flee Cuba in order to survive. He begs Aurora to come with him to New York, but by now she is a loyal daughter of the revolution and will not leave her homeland.
Garcia does a wonderful job of juxtaposing the horrible injustices of war and the romantic lure of what Cuba was once like by drawing on some reflecting memories of when he was a five-year-old living there. Cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh, who arrived to shoot the film in the Dominican Republic with virtually no pre-production time, captures the opulent essence of what Havana once looked like in Garcia’s mind. “It was the Paris of the Caribbean,” said Garcia.
What makes the film stand out is the music and the creation of El Tropico with all its acts and musicians. Songs heard on the soundtrack -- including Beny More, Israel Lopez “Cachao,” Roland Laserie and Bola de Nieve -- represent Cuban music in its prime. A strange mix present in the club includes Afro-Cuban rhythms, a vital part of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. Beautiful dance numbers, choreographed by Lupe Calzadilla for the ballet numbers, and Neri Torres for the nightclub and folkloric numbers, add another layer of enjoyment to the film.
Along with its original score written by Garcia, the movie includes mambos, chachachas, rumbas, toques, danzones, boleros (that Garcia sees as an oral history of Cuba revealed in dance), poetry, Catholicism, African and European heritages, Revolution, tobacco, Santeria and the beauty of country’s natural surroundings.
As much as I enjoyed the story and the way Garcia and Infante deliver it, two things kept me from loving The Lost City. Few filmmakers can sustain interest in a film past two hours. At two hours and 23 minutes, this movie falls prey to a sagging middle, a boring third act and too many ho-hum minutes. I fear Garcia’s passion to get this film on screen overshadowed a filmmaker’s realistic sense of what moviegoers want to see.
Add in two American actors whose parts didn’t work. Dustin Hoffman has a cameo as gangster Meyer Lansky and adds nothing to the film. Worse is Bill Murray as an emotionless and non-interested American gag writer who throws out obscure one-liners about the absurdity of Cuban life during the most inopportune times. It was like one of those pop-up bubbles that first appeared on the net being thrown into a poignant movie. Every time he showed up, I lost my connection to the story.
Still, Garcia’s fans and viewers who love Cuban music will probably enjoy The Lost City -- if they don’t mind the long run time.
(Released by Lions Gate Films/Magnolia Pictures and rated "R" for violence.)
Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.