Our man in Havana: an entertainment

The Lost City

Inés Sastre and Andy Garcia contemplate their Cuba Libre.

Inés Sastre and Andy Garcia contemplate their Cuba Libre.

Rated 3.0

The Lost City is director-star Andy Garcia’s flawed, fervent tribute to his native Havana. It’s a heartfelt, doleful film, beset by loss and regret. Watching it, one senses that it is the culmination of Garcia’s career, the movie for which he most would want to be remembered. If so, he may get his wish. Certainly, The Lost City offers evidence that Andy Garcia the director shares the strengths and weaknesses of Andy Garcia the actor.

Garcia reportedly spent 16 years trying to bring The Lost City to the screen, a fact made more poignant by the death of the film’s writer, G. Cabrera Infante, in February 2005, five months before the movie’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival. Since September, The Lost City has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, with a limited domestic release that began in April. There’s a melancholy aura to the movie’s history that suits the melancholy of the movie itself.

Garcia plays Federico “Fico” Fellove, a nightclub owner in pre-Castro Cuba, when Havana was both a playground for well-to-do American tourists and a tempting prize for the forces of organized crime (represented by Dustin Hoffman, in a sharp cameo as gangster Meyer Lansky). The sight of Fico at his club in his white dinner jacket naturally prompts thoughts of Bogart in Casablanca, which the club’s bilingual style reinforces—the show is performed in Spanish but emceed in English, and the musicians’ stands read “Fico’s La Tropicana” rather than (as they would in Spanish) “La Tropicana de Fico.”

Political tension is present from the first scene, as a family discussion in Fico’s office between his father (Tomas Milian), a distinguished university professor, and Fico’s two brothers degenerates into a political harangue, with the brothers nearly coming to blows. In time, Fico’s brothers both will work against the Batista dictatorship; Luis (Nestor Carbonell) leads an ill-fated raid on the presidential palace, and Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) heads into the mountains to fight with Castro. Meanwhile, Fico remains at La Tropicana trying to hold his family together as their world comes apart, viewing both Batista and Castro (as does the film itself) with equal distaste.

As an actor, Garcia has been an asset to many movies—intense, smoldering and suggesting a volcanic energy barely held in check. But his actor’s energy is inner-directed; he seems always to be regarding the other characters—and the audience—with wary aversion, a lion guarding his own. It makes him an invaluable asset as a supporting actor—think of him in The Godfather: Part III or of the palpable menace he could add to a piece of vanity piffle like Ocean’s 11. But that inward intensity serves him ill when he’s the center of the film, and he’s never been able to carry a movie on his own; Garcia is probably 10 times the actor George Clooney is, but not half the star.

As a director, Garcia has the same intensity and intimate sense of his subject that the actor Garcia has of his characters, but he doesn’t shape the material dramatically. Individual scenes (especially the musical numbers at the club) pulse with such vitality that we remember isolated moments better than we do the epic sweep of personal and political events. And he fails to integrate some elements of the script—particularly a character played by Bill Murray, who claims to be a standup comic but is called “The Writer” in the credits (suggesting that he’s a surrogate for Cabrera Infante himself). The Writer is, in fact, a Shakespearean fool inserted for sardonic detachment (and spouting the same kind of unfunny patter that Shakespeare always wrote for his fools). As amusing and welcome as Murray’s presence is, he’s playing an English-lit. conceit that sheds little light on Cuba or Cubans.

But, for all its shortcomings—which include an extreme length that could benefit from some pruning and sharpened focus—The Lost City has the kind of personal resonance that used to be more common in even the most routine movies. No doubt it could—even should—have been better. But on the most important level, there should be more movies like it.