A Revolution in Pictures
"The Lost City"
If there was as much talent in the making of this film as there was ego bloating it to painful levels, it would have turned into something much more compelling. The best that can be said for it is that it conveys an idea of the issues for Cubans during the last days of the Batista regime and early days of the Castro takeover. If anyone was wondering why so many Cubans left their land and have flooded out since, risking life and forsaking relationships, see the movie.
But, unless you have a great capacity for sentimental embellishment without relief, I have to say that the main moments I remember are operatic farewells, enough tears to fill the Hollywood reservoir and no quarter given in emotional excess.
It's 1958. The tyrannical dictator Fulgencio Batista (Juan Fernandez) is hanging on to power and oppressing his people. Fidel Castro (Gonzalo Menendez) and Che Guevara (Jsu Garcia) are in the hills with their army, attacking and terrorizing the countryside as circumstances and ammunition allow. Havana is roiled up. The scent of change is in the air and people are taking sides. Through all this, Fico Fellove runs the city's classiest musical nightclub, attracting the best native talent to his stage.
The club's success is so conspicous it attracts the interest of the major mob figure, Meyer Lansky (Dustin Hoffman) who makes an offer. Incurring the threat of the gangster's punishment, Fico turns it down. Fico is true to his entrepreneurial creation, just as he is to the special quality of his nation. His nightclub symbolizes the essence of Havana. Why he then hires a gagman whom we know as "The Writer" (Bill Murray) is anybody's guess but the Murray standup style is somehow integrated into the serious tapestry of calamity and romance.
Fico participates in many meals and conversations with his family, especially with his philosophical and loving father, a professor. His brothers are problems, with one taking the lead in an ill fated attack on Batista's palace and losing his life to the the chief of the dictator's police in a followup retaliation. When he dies, Fico lives up to the promise he made to his brother to care for his widow, the statuesque Aurora (Ines Sastre) in the event of his death.
The relationship is slowly recognized as mutual and intense but, when Fidel takes over the country in December of that year, her husband's sacrifice is recognized by the communist general and she's acclaimed for it. She responds to the honor by joining Fidel's cause as one of his inner circle. Fico responds by seeing the handwriting on the wall and fleeing the country until Fidel takes his turn, presumably, in disappearing from the stage of Cuba's leadership as surely as the parade into oblivion of his predecessors.
Of course, as we all know, it didn't turn out that way. And, Garcia, who directed from G. Cabrera Infante's script, has wanted to make of movie out of this part of the Cuban tragedy every since he left Havana at age 5 1/2. As a screen presence, he's way up there with the handsomest. As a filmmaker, unfortunately, he's done a collection of arias. His characters don't just say goodbye. No one departs in less than five minutes. There's no expression of love or inner feelings under seven (or so it felt). There are extended hugs and back-slapping encouragements galore. Forgets cuts. Understatement is the alien concept. And it goes two hours and twenty three minutes.
Colors and textures are very well captured in the cinematography and production design, but performances suffer. What talent is there is blunted by clinging to sentiment to the last drop of emotional bile. Many (not all) supporting players seem more Garcia paisanos than players who might have, under more skillful and objective choices, added a greater contribution of depth or originality to the piece. But creative objectivity is what is in such short supply. If it were oxygen we'd all suffocate. Discipline is as rare as a Cuban cigar in Los Angeles. Garcia allows himself so much overindulgence, the seriousness of his story wallows in so much excess, we're looking for a lifeboat to rescue us from the tsunami of theatrics.
The events show a time of great trouble for a romantic and creative people, but I didn't come to the theatre in order to be punished for it. Talk about oppression. By the 2nd hour with seemingly no end in sight, I was beginning to feel trapped by a tyrant who wouldn't let go.