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Paradise Lost By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Lost City, Andy Garcia's film about Cuba, is now playing in American theatres and everybody should see it for at least two reasons. First, various film festivals and South American countries, Garcia says, have refused to show it.  That’s a recommendation in itself.  And secondly, after the sinister romance of The Motorcycle Diaries, filmgoers deserve an honest portrayal of Che Guevara, which The Lost City provides, even though it is not a political movie.

The story takes place just before the revolution and  centers on Fico Fellove, played by Garcia, owner of El Tropico, a Havana nightclub, and his love for Aurora, played by Ines Sastre, who alone is worth the price of admission. Fico, who reminds some critics of Rick in Casablanca, finds his family divided over dictator Fulgencio Batista and the revolution out to topple him. The film uses music and dance to evoke Cuba of the 1950s, which Garcia believes was the last elegant era anywhere.


Although made on a budget of $9.5 million, less than half the pay for some actors on one movie, The Lost City sounds and looks good. It tries to cover a lot of ground in 143 minutes, not always succeeding. Fico’s wisecracking writer-sidekick, played by Bill Murray, will leave some viewers laughing, others puzzled. Many viewers and even critics will be unaware of the various back stories in play in this film.


One reason The Lost City was 16 years in the making was the resistance of Hollywood, growing out of its long affair with Fidel Castro. Sidney Pollock experienced no similar delay with Havana (1990), starring Robert Redford, which did not have to go the independent route. Neither did Richard Lester's Cuba, (1978) with Sean Connery. The adulation of Castro has been recently covered in Fidel: Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant, by Humberto E. Fontova, a Cuban exile like Andy Garcia, and which would make a good companion volume to this movie.


The transmission belt went from homegrown fans of Castro in the New Left directly to Hollywood studio execs. (Here is celebrity radical Abbie Hoffman talking up Fidel Castro in the sixties: "Fidel lets the gun drop to the ground, slaps his thigh and stands erect. He is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight, the crowd immediately is transformed.")  The fatuous adulation continues today, four decades after many early enthusiasts of the Revolution abandoned Castro as a Stalinist thug.  Today, only Berkeley, Cambridge and Hollywood have any illusions.  Thus, Steven Spielberg described his meeting with Castro as "the most important eight hours of my life." Oliver Stone called Castro "very selfless and moral" and "one of the world's wisest men." Jack Nicholson dubbed him "a genius."  Says Harry Belafonte, who has never met a left wing tyrant he didn’t like, "If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro!" Chevy Chase’s opinion is that "Socialism works. I think Cuba might prove that." But the Castro suck-up Oscar should go to Godfather impresario Francis Ford Coppola: "Fidel, I love you. We both have the same initials. We both have beards. We both have power and want to use it for good purposes."


The same American left that venerates Fidel portrays pre-Castro Cuba as a dark age of poverty and oppression, all maintained by the CIA, multinational corporations and the mafia. Andy Garcia, who also directed The Lost City, has taken some heat for his more upbeat portrayal of those days. Stephen Holden of the New York Times complains that The Lost City wanders on "without saying much, beyond that life sure was peachy before Fidel Castro came to town and ruined everything." In fact, that is pretty much what happened. Humberto Fontova cites a 1957 UNESCO report noting Cuba's large middle class, highly unionized workforce and an average wage higher than workers in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany." Fidel's socialism transformed that prosperous country into something more akin to Haiti.


In his Los Angeles Citybeat review of The Lost City, Andy Klein says, "we hear not a word about Castro’s early push for 100 percent literacy or health care for those not of Fico’s class."  As Fontova points out, Cuba was actually a literate place, with 58 daily newspapers, and now with a completely controlled press, dedicated to the glorification of the Maximo Lider.  Literacy in Havana is a pragmatic goal: all the better to read communist party publications.


The Lost City shows what Havana nightlife was like but is not a cinematic Potemkin village. Neither does it soft-pedal Batista, whose thugs get a lot of screen time in this movie. Fico's family wants to get rid of the tyrant, some of them choosing evolution and ballots, others by revolution and bullets. There is also a lot of talk—much as there must have been at the time-- about Fidel Castro. Does he want democracy or is he a communist?


Stephen Holden says that "political dialogue in the film is strictly of the junior high school variety. But the political dialogue here, written by the late Cuban dissident novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, reflects the realities of the time for a modern audience. No doubt Holden would have felt better if Columbian Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, always the mouthpiece for Castro, had done the scenario.


"Some people think Castro is a savior," Andy Garcia (whose family suffered in the revolution) told the L.A. Daily News, "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." In Hollywood, that sort of statement takes guts.


In The Lost City, Fidel Castro appears as himself in newsreel footage. We do get to see Che Guevara, played by Jsu Garcia, who bears a remarkable likeness to the upper-class Argentine Stalinist whose mug adorns so many T-shirts. We also see Guevara rather casually executing people, though nothing on the scale of what actually happened. As Andy Garcia explained to an interviewer:


"You know, this is what Che was doing in Cuba. He was the tribunal judge after the revolution and he was executing people left and right and a lot of them without a trial."


Garcia is right on the money.  By some counts, Che Guevara sent 1,897 men to the firing squad. Though not conveying the sense of a mass executioner, the portrayal of Che Guevara is more accurate that anything in The Motorcycle Diaries. Some people have gotten the message. Tim Grierson writing in L.A. Weekly, of all places, said that "Garcia deserves credit for his lack of self-indulgent flourishes, and for his sharp criticism of so-called freedom-fighting icons like Che Guevara."


The film shows Castro goons banning the saxophone in Fico's club because the instrument was invented by a Belgian, a colonial power in Africa. We don't see Fidel railing against jazz as the music of American imperialists. We don't see Fidel jailing people for playing jazz. That happened to trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, whom Andy Garcia played in the HBO move For Love or Country.


Fico departs for the United States before Fidel Castro's "machismo-Leninismo" hits full stride. Viewers of The Lost City don't see him persecuting homosexuals, which the great Cuban dissident cinematographer Nestor Almendros chronicled in the documentary Improper Conduct. Viewers won't see the Marxist regime oppressing and torturing writers and poets, which Armando Valladares chronicled in Against All Hope. Viewers who may be opponents of capital punishment don't see Castro's show trial and execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa, which Orlando Jimenez Leal chronicled in the documentary 8A, using Fidel's own footage of the trial proceedings, in which the accused 's own lawyers demanded that their client get the death penalty.


The Cuba so beloved in Hollywood remains a country so oppressive and impoverished that people flee at the first available opportunity, risking their lives and leaving loved ones behind. Viewers of The Lost City will not see Cubans attempting to escape on inner tubes or just about anything that floats, using ping-pong paddles as oars. They won't see Fidel's forces attacking those who flee. But this evil saga stands behind the film.  A full 77,000 Cubans have died attempting to leave. The waters between Cuba and Florida have become a graveyard without crosses.


But Andy Garcia provides an honest look at life in Cuba before Fidel, and a welcome look at Che the executioner. The film is worth seeing and a good beginning to a cinematic chronicle of the real Cuba—the story Hollywood had hidden in plain sight ever since Castro stumbled out of the Sierra Maestra and began to create his tropical gulag.


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Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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