LOST CITY - DVD review

You come away from it thinking that what was most lost was an opportunity to more passionately document this fascinating time and place.

James Plath's picture

First-time director Andy Garcia was a young boy in Havana during the Fifties when U.S. citizens were still traveling to the island for holidays. He left with his family in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro seized power, ushered in communism, nationalized business holdings, and sent not only political enemies but also most of Cuba's wealthy and many of its intelligencia paddling for nearby capitalist shores. In an interview for this DVD, Garcia says that like many exiles, he has felt a "profound nostalgia" for the country of his childhood, adding that this film reflects his "life's joy" and his "dream." Garcia says that he has found solace in Cuban music itself, and the theme of "The Lost City" is pretty much the same thing, he says: how Cubans find solace in their culture and music.

"The Lost City" is certainly nostalgic, even elegiac in tone, but it's more political than musical, and it celebrates a lost way of life in much the same way as ante-bellum literature bemoaned the loss of the grand Southern plantation way of life. Which is to say, the good life before Castro wasn't good for everyone. Latin American historians all but agree that pre-revolutionary Cuba was driven by foreign interests in sugar, oil, and tourism. Before Castro's revolution, dictators Gerardo Machado (1924-33) and Fulgencio Batista (1934-59) had murderous reigns with ties to the U.S. In the Forties and Fifties, with Batista's collaboration, U.S. interests controlled 90 percent of Cuba's telephone and electrical services and 40 percent of its sugar production, while organized crime controlled all of the gambling in Havana. But both dictators played ball with the mob, and they and Cuba's aristocracy lived a life that was definitely good, compared to the island's peasants. In "The Lost City," everyone sits around eating fine meals on fine china in large houses. That's not how most Cubans lived.

Exiles justifiably resent that their families' land and fortunes were confiscated by a Castro government intent on ousting foreign investments and equalizing the wealth. Those still living on the island are quick to remind, though, that while conditions for the minority business and land-owning class obviously worsened under a socialist government, life has improved for the majority. For them, Castro is the greatest national hero since José Martí. Even many U.S. historians concede that Cuba under Castro, though not adept at generating wealth, has nonetheless made significant improvements in public housing, education, health care, and culture. Before Castro, there were only six museums. Now there are some 300. Literacy rates have improved, and life expectancies have increased. Poor families live in crowded housing now, but before Castro many had no housing. Yes, dissidents were and still are jailed and killed, but how Cubans react to Castro still depends largely on whether they are wealthy or poor. And that's a fact that newspapers don't often drive home.

In "The Lost City," which Garcia described as a "Casablanca/Dr. Zhivago type of film," Garcia plays a character quite similar to the one Humphrey Bogart portrayed. Like Rick, Fico Felove (Garcia) is a well-heeled proprietor of a posh nightclub who's trying to stay neutral at a time of political upheaval. He has a brother who's committed to the revolution and another brother who gets drawn into the struggle. There's much that could have been dramatized here to make for just as sweeping a patrician saga as that grand cinematic celebration of a lost way of life, "Gone with the Wind," or, as Garcia suggests, "Dr. Zhivago." But far too much time is spent on sit-and-talk scenes where everyone frets about the changes that are happening to Cuba, so that it stifles any romance and drama. And for a film that's supposed to be about finding solace in music, there's a surprising paucity of mambo in "The Lost City." What there is simply makes us want more, and after listening to Garcia's remarks, we also wish for more of a connection between the music and the troubles that befall people on this beautiful Caribbean island. Despite an obvious loving eye, "The Lost City" is painfully dull and slow-moving in spots, with as many throw-away characters as there are throw-away lines (like "I can see you have a thirst for revenge").

Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray are absolutely wasted in small performances. Hoffman plays Meyer Lansky far different from the way he was played in Sydney Pollack's "Havana"—almost like a nerdy Jewish mobster version of Columbo. And Murray isn't much better as the writer who dogs Fico for a job and ends up being a glorified toady, hanging around in Bermuda shorts and offering wise fool remarks like a character from a Shakespearian play. If all the remarks were funny or wise I wouldn't be so critical, but only a few of the lines come across that way.

Then there's the romance, with Inés Sastre providing the love interest. But that too should have been more interesting, given the fact that she was the wife of Fico's brother whom he promised to care for after his death, and that Fico's brother was pro-Castro while he was not. Perhaps there was more character development in the initial screenplay, which celebrated Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote. In a bonus feature, Garcia holds up the fourth draft, which was as thick as a New York City phone book. Somebody had to edit the thing, and I suspect that it wasn't Infante, and that something disappointing happened to the script in the process.

That's true of the film as a whole. With a revolution brewing, "The Lost City" isn't as tense or rousing as you'd expect, and with a romance simmering it doesn't have the passion that holds you transfixed. Even saturated with politics, the film isn't as intriguing as you'd expect, and the Castro revolutionaries seem almost cartoonish. But the real disappointment, especially given Garcia's love of country, is that because "The Lost City" was filmed by an American production company, it could not have been shot in Havana. Instead, Garcia took his film crew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. There's a pull-back shot of what looks like Havana's famed Malecón avenue and another of the Morro Castle where prisoners were held which look as if they could be stock footage spliced in, but the rest of the film's exteriors are carefully framed in tight shots to show architectural features that are similar to those in Old Havana. If the shots were wider and those features were shown in context you could tell that it wasn't Havana, which is much more crumbling right now. But the cinematography is excellent, especially in the scenes of Fico's El Tropico—which is supposed to be the equivalent of Cuba's famous Tropicana nightclub. I can't say what the Tropicana was like in the Fifties, but in the Nineties when I visited Cuba twice to lecture on Hemingway, it was an open-air nightclub with a fairly small stage—not an indoor affair like the one in "The Lost City."

Eventually, Fico sees his family torn apart and his beloved El Tropico used for other things, just as a country club at which Vice President Richard Nixon stayed and played golf was turned into a school for artists and musicians. The golf course, at the time ranked number two in the world, is now reclaimed pasture—complete with cows—used only for occasional stress-relieving softball games between faculty and students. It's true. Much was lost with the Castro revolution. But "The Lost City" doesn't tell the story in a compelling enough way. It's beautifully filmed and you can tell it has heart, but it doesn't come together very well—certainly not as well as "Casablanca" or "Dr. Zhivago."

Video: "The Lost City" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality is very good—even stunning in spots, as during the El Tropico performances and in some low-light scenes where detail doesn't seem to suffer at all. Excellent quality.

Audio: The audio is also quite good, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo choice that's really not much of one unless your equipment is limited. The 5.1 is rich and robust, with great treble/bass balance and timbre. Subtitles are in Spanish.

Extras: A making-of feature is mostly Garcia sitting in his office showing us props and narrating, the way Walt Disney used to do, with clips of the film and behind-the-scenes shooting intercut. It's pretty average as making-of features go, as are 10 deleted scenes playable with or without commentary by Garcia, actor Nestor Carbonell and production designer Waldemar Kalinowski, who also team up for the feature-length commentary which is the best feature, by far.

Bottom Line: Garcia's film celebrates a way of life forever lost when Castro seized power and redistributed the country's wealth. There were many executions, and people who first supported Castro would eventually turn away from him. But "The Lost City" is so dull and plodding in spots that you come away from it thinking that what was most lost was an opportunity to more passionately document this fascinating time and place.


Film Value