If Andy Garcia should have learned anything from being in The Godfather: Part III, he should have learned to eventually model his directorial debut on the mafia series' earlier installments instead of the one in which he starred. His choice for a debut even sounds like the plot of The Godfather: Part II, as it features a wealthy family broken apart in the late 1950s amidst the Cuban Revolution. Unfortunately Garcia's The Lost City is nothing like Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 Oscar-winner, and is everything like the awkward mess that is Coppola's disappointment of 1990.
The Lost City opens on a lone man playing the trumpet, quickly diverts to an assassination by two men, then cuts quickly again to a mambo performance. Thinking back, I'm still unsure of which characters those two assassins are, and who it is they kill. Could this be a problem with my short-term memory, or could it be a problem with poor filmmaking? All I know is that those first few minutes of unclear focus are a foreshadowing of the abrupt, cursory style with which the film continues to proceeds through story and history.
The mambo performance, I can tell you at least, is one of many performed at El Tropico, a glamorous Havana nightclub owned by Fico Fellove (Garcia). Fico is a well-respected man in the capital city and a member of an aristocratic family that includes his father (Tomás Milian), an esteemed professor at the University of Havana, and his uncle (Richard Bradford), the owner of a large tobacco plantation. An unyielding businessman, Fico early on declines a partnership with mafia boss Meyer Lansky (Dustin Hoffman). He also exhibits his influence by easily arranging for the release of his idealistic brother Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) from jail.
Unfortunately for Fico and his family, Ricardo has no desire to quit his cause. Instead he goes off into the jungle and joins up with 'Che' Guevara (Jsu Garcia) and the rest of the insurgents. Meanwhile, Fico's other brother, Luis (Nestor Carbonell), storms the presidential palace in a failed attempt to assassinate Fulgencio Batista (Juan Fernández). Of course, Batista finally flees Cuba on New Year's Day, 1959, and Fidel Castro takes over. After that, it becomes harder and harder for Fico, even as apolitical as he is, to find comfort in his homeland.
The Lost City has a lot more going on than all of that: a shaky romance evolves between Fico and Aurora (Inés Sastre), Luis' widow; Bill Murray floats through the film as a nameless American writer providing comic relief that isn't very funny; musical interludes such as the opening mambo and an Afro-Cuban number punctuate the story now and again. The problem is the film can't hold everything in, and it collapses loudly all over the place.
Garcia obviously has more ambition than skill . Intent on paying tribute to his birthplace (he was five when his family fled to America) with respect to its appearance, to its history and to its music, the actor-director falls in line with a great many filmmakers who crashed hard with their labors of love. His direction is clumsy to the point of embarrassment, going so far as to even commit the cardinal sin of cinema by breaking the 180-degree rule, and he cuts scenes so short they seem like condensed versions of whole moments. When Guevara is introduced, for instance, he is reduced to his most basic quote, "the end justifies the means," which just barely tells us more about him than do the popular t-shirts displaying his portrait.
At times there is a strong sense of insufficiency to the film, like a grand-scale TV-movie requiring the time scale of a mini-series. Many sequences that could be sustained are inter-cut with others, depreciating significant events and dramatic tension, and occasionally the introduction of different format techniques, like news footage and black and white cinematography, has a way of making the film feel even more cluttered. Despite the initially abridged structure, though, The Lost City shifts toward feeling overlong in the second half, especially during an unnecessarily drawn out epilogue showing Fico's new life in the States.
The Lost City was scripted by the late Cuban writer G. Cabrera Infante, who based it loosely on his novel Tres Tristes Tigres (translated in English as Three Trapped Tigers). Infante's writing has been compared favorably to James Joyce and Miguel de Cervantes, which may explain the complexity of his screenplay. Unfortunately, while shifts in tone sometimes work in convoluted fiction, such a compounded style rarely adapts well to cinema. The Lost City is jarring in its inconsistency, as it fluctuates from drama to comedy to historical account, and it is therefore incapable of garnering concern from its audience.
The story of the Cuban Revolution is one rich with possibility, and yet aside from being minimally but respectfully touched on in The Godfather, Part II, it hasn't been properly depicted on film. The Lost City joins other catastrophes like Richard Lester's Cuba, starring Sean Connery as a British soldier who helps to train Batista's army, and Sydney Pollack's Havana, a near-remake of Casablanca starring Robert Redford. It is imaginable that The Lost City could have been something amazing had Garcia not chosen to direct the picture himself, but just like wondering what Cuba could have been had there not been a revolution, some things will unfortunately never be known.