Andy Garcia’s most recent movie is oceans apart from what you might have seen him in lately–say, the big-budget box-office success Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve)–but it’s a movie that should not get lost.
The Lost City is an intensely personal project for Garcia. An ode to his homeland, Cuba, it’s full of the passion Hispanic culture is known for–as he portrays family life, the social scene, and, of course, the politics of a troubled island.
The film is set in late-1950s Cuba, right on the eve of la revolución, and Garcia, who directed and stars, crashes straight into the myth of Che Guevara–¡Gracias a Dios! The Lost City has something for everyone: contagious music, a love story, family drama–and familiar faces in Bill Murray, playing to type, and Dustin Hoffman, playing a mobster. But it’s a love story unlike anything Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks or any chick-flick might bring you–here the love between a man and woman can’t escape the brutality of sacrifice and tyranny, and is but one love, where democracy is a deep and abiding one.
One is reminded of George W. Bush’s freedom talk while watching The Lost City. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom. . . . Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.” There’s no reason to believe Garcia is saying anything about any contemporary American pols, but these are the very same sentiments his movie bleeds. This movie is, according to many accounts, a labor of love for Garcia; but even a newcomer to Garcia, or someone who just stumbled on The Lost City in the multiplex, will be able to pick up on the director’s feelings for his subject. Garcia’s character in the film is Fico Fellove, son and brother, popular Havana nightclub owner, anti-Communist–a hard-working, hard-loving man fighting the forces of crime and the punishment of the Cuban Revolution as they invade his and his family’s life. Fico gives you someones to care about–but it’s in the scenes where the camera mercilessly portrays the power-hungry brutality of the “Cuban revolution” that the film is most effective.
Movie reviewers–a club of which I most definitely am not a member–have taken issue with The Lost City: It is, they point out, too long. But viva The Lost City anyway–it more than makes up for its flaws in its myth-busting cultural contributions. Here in the U.S., where Che Guevara T-shirts are a staple at most soccer-mom shopping malls and on college campuses, it’s a countercultural revolution of a movie. If Bill Clinton and Janet Reno were still in charge–thugs at the ready to send a boy back down to be Fidel’s poster boy after his mother died getting him here, to freedom–I’d be advocating showing the movie on the Ellipse, marathon-style. It provides a much-needed respite of moral clarity in between Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Motorcycle Diaries (which portrayed a young Guevara–doctor and freedom fighter–as a secular saint) and the upcoming Steven Soderbergh Che-fest starring Benicio Del Toro (both Soderbergh and Del Toro are Oscar winners).
Che–a Communist responsible for Castro’s gulags–was a monster. But nothing I could tell you about him could do him the kind of justice that Garcia’s film does. You see some of Guevara’s brutality, but Garcia’s most powerful scene may be the one where Fico himself faces Che. When Fico is forced to confront the executioner on prison grounds on behalf of a friend, the viewer feels not only Garcia’s anger and disgust (he himself, as a child, fled this tyrant’s thuggery), but the pain and hatred of an entire people whose lives were irrevocably changed by the Castro-Guevara nightmare. This is Garcia’s moment: You watch a race of overwhelming emotions in the character, and you have the palpable sense it’s not all acting.
There is another haunting scene as you take the heart-wrenching walk with Fico when he embarks on his journey out of Cuba to Lady Liberty’s arms, you might as well be watching home movies from the Garcia family’s own exit; the emotion is that raw.
Garcia’s movie has clearly touched a nerve already: It has been banned in several South American countries. No surprise, given that “Viva Che” is a natural mantra for the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. And we can’t forget, of course, about Fidel Castro, in power since 1959, with doctors threatening he could live to be 140–60 more years.
Garcia has said in response to the controversy about his movie: “Some people think Castro is a savior, that he looks out for kids and the poor. It’s a bunch of hogwash. In the 45 years since Castro has been in power, Cuba has been in the top three countries for human rights abuses for 43 of those years. People turn a blind eye to his atrocities.” Not Andy Garcia though.
Unfortunately, here at home, The Lost City is in limited release and not nearly as easy to come upon as Che shirts. But Hollywood is the better for it, even if it saves its embraces for Che whitewashes. It won’t win an Oscar, but it certainly more than earned my ten bucks. Consider the price of your movie ticket or DVD purchase a challenge to the movie industry, a vote of praise for Garcia’s labor of love and heartache, and a friendly wave to people who love what we have–liberty.
–Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.