Actor-director Andy Garcia’s film "The Lost City," issued last week on DVD, is independent in more ways than one. Not only was it made outside Hollywood’s studios; it veers from the simplistic view that life in Cuba was made infinitely better by the 1958-1959 overthrow of the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista, and it avoids the typically statist Hollywood hagiography of such bloodthirsty tyrants as Fidel Castro.
Made for less than $10 million, yet looking as if it cost far more to produce, "The Lost City" is a film of great moments and of uneven quality. At its heart is a mundane love story, in which the love interest, portrayed by Inés Sastra, represents Cuba. Nevertheless, the film is well-acted; the cinematography, striking; and the soundtrack, which features Beny Moré, Bola de Nieve, Rolando Laserie and nearly 20 other Cuban musical acts, splendid.
But most notably, the film serves as a telling counterpoint to the Hollywood zeitgeist that emerged from the controversies over communism in the 1950s. Hollywood’s skewed perspective now leads it to minimize the human cost of leftist dictatorships — ironic, given the sudden prospect of a freer Cuba without Castro.
Garcia and his screenwriter, the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, know the reality of communism better than Hollywood’s armchair political theorists. Both Garcia and Infante were born in Cuba — Garcia in 1956, and Infante in 1929. According to Garcia, he left Cuba "at age five, when my parents decided that I would not have a communist state education, (and) my life as a Cuban ended and my life as a Cuban American began."
Infante had a more chaotic experience. His father worked as a journalist for the Communist Party after being imprisoned and blacklisted by Batista’s government. Guillermo himself was expelled from journalism school for two years and imprisoned by the Batista regime for using American obscenities in one of his published short stories.
After Castro took control of Cuba, Infante fell out of political favor and was sent to Brussels as a cultural attaché. When he returned to Cuba for his mother’s funeral in 1965, he was inspired to write the pieces eventually published as the book "View of Dawn in the Tropics." These essays documented his disillusion with the changes wrought by Castro and resulted in his temporary detainment in Havana. Following his release, he returned to Europe and remained exiled from Cuba until his death in February 2005.
The Cuba depicted by Garcia and Infante in "The Lost City" is a country of political unrest and cultural high-water marks. Garcia portrays Fico Fellove, a nightclub proprietor who provides an outlet for Cuba’s rich cultural heritage. Once Castro assumes power, however, Fico is told to adapt the music and dance numbers to Communist Party standards, rendering them absurd. Disheartened, Fico exiles himself to the United States. His more politically active brothers, however, witness the brutality of not just Batista, but Castro and leftist icon Che Guevara. This violence is presented through re-enactments of firsthand accounts, as well as actual newsreel footage of firing squads and beatings.
Portraying ruthless men like Castro and Guevara from the perspective of the people they killed might one day lead to better cinema from Hollywood — but don’t hold your breath. In an ironic twist, Steven Soderbergh, Garcia’s director in "Ocean’s Eleven" and "Ocean’s Twelve," is planning to film "Guerrilla," a biopic of Guevara starring Benicio Del Toro. The film undoubtedly will receive a wide release — a poignant contrast to "The Lost City," whose release was limited to art houses.
Soderbergh intends to depict Guevara as a complex man rather than the murderous thug he was in reality. "(Guevara is) a very complicated subject," Soderbergh said in a recent in a January 2006 interview, "because he's one of the few figures that holds up the more you scrutinize him, but he was really complicated, and it's been hard to figure out what story we want to tell because there's a lot of story there."
There may be "a lot of story there" — but the tale of a would-be tyrant is complicated only if you really want it to be.
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.