The Buena Vista Socialist Club

Washington City Paper | May 19, 2006
Andy Garcia has a special connection with Cuba, certainly, but he’s hardly the first American filmmaker to conclude that what happened in late-’50s Havana is a ready-made Hollywood scenario. The fall of one dictator and the rise of another in a city known for glittering nightlife promises the sort of glamour, romance, and violence that could, if all goes well, evoke Casablanca.

Alas, Richard Lester’s dynamic but muddled Cuba, Sydney Pollack’s stilted Havana, and even the vapid Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights all got there first, and director/star Garcia has little to add. He reportedly worked 15 years to get The Lost City made, but his zeal for the project doesn’t translate to passion on the screen. Although Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Bill Murray all make appearances, Garcia and scripter G. Cabrera Infante (a Cuban-born novelist who died last year) conceived the film as a family saga. What happens to Cuba happens to the Fellove clan, who embody the circa-1959 Cuban bourgeoisie’s various impulses: hedonism, propriety, and revolution.

This would be a sturdy dramatic framework if all the Felloves were drawn with equal definition. But the only characters endowed with any detail are suave nightclub owner Fico (Garcia, of course) and his lovely sister-in-law Aurora (Spanish model Inés Sastre, who was part of Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds harem but is probably better known for her Lancôme ads). Fico’s younger brothers, Luis (Nestor Carbonell) and Ricardo (Enrique Murciano), are merely pistol-packing, Batista-hating plot devices.

The Lost City is rendered in chiaroscuro that wouldn’t have worked in black and white, but nothing else in this deliberately old-fashioned movie would have surprised audiences—or censors—in the ’40s. Fico is the only one of the brothers who’s unmarried, and it’s gently suggested that he’s something of a playboy. But the raciest sequences are tame floor-show numbers set to Afro-Cuban rhythms and sometimes cross-cut with scenes of violence, an editing scheme standard in Havana-in-1959 flicks.

Fico’s indulgence, it turns out, isn’t sex, booze, drugs, or gambling; it’s an eccentric pal known only as the Writer (Murray). The Writer is sort of an absurdist Robert Benchley, attempting to interject some mid-20th-century wit into the proceedings, even if Murray’s delivery is better suited to Meatballs than the Algonquin round table. For what it’s worth, he isn’t as bad as Elizabeth Peña, who has a couple of crime-inducing scenes as a revolutionary factotum who announces a ban on the saxophone because it’s somehow connected to Belgian imperialism in the Congo.

Fico is thrust into the political fray by another genre staple: The revolution comes to him in the form of a beautiful woman. Luis joins a failed assault on Batista’s palace and is tracked down and killed. This leaves Aurora bereft, and Fico’s filial duty to look after her quickly turns to discreetly depicted romance. (In one post-coital moment, the couple lie in bed together, seemingly dressed for a Sears underwear spread.) After Castro’s triumph, Aurora is feted as a revolutionary widow, which she greatly enjoys. As Fico makes plans to leave Cuba, Aurora must decide if she loves him more than her new status.

Yes, Garcia includes the waves-crashing-on-seawall shot seen in every Havana movie—even those that, like this one, were shot in the Dominican Republic. But in large part, it’s the imagery that sustains The Lost City through its 143-minute running time. Even when the story flags or the characterization falters, cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh’s hot tropical light and shadowy interiors beguile. Dustin Hoffman’s turn as gangster Meyer Lansky is far from necessary, but the fact that he plays the first of his two scenes mostly in silhouette is pretty interesting. Elsewhere, faces are often photographed three-quarters in shadow, a gambit so flattering to Sastre that it suggests her cheekbones inspired the movie’s entire look.

As things are going dark for the Felloves, Fico’s father informs his son, “In Cuba, we have always had plenty of light.” Well, Garcia got that right. But for a film rooted in the director’s own experience, The Lost City is surprisingly unilluminating.

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