Somehow, though communism itself is now, as Ronald Reagan predicted, on the "ash heap of history," the myth of communist revolutionary Che Guevara survives. His image, ubiquitous on college campuses, adorning T-shirts and dorm room walls, has become synonymous with the lemming-like, pop liberalism of adolescence. The adoration of this violent rebel isn't limited to the ivory tower, though. Che made the "Heroes and Icons" section of "The Time 100"-the magazine's listing of "the most important people of the century."
"He's romanticized so much that people don't really look into the history of Che Guevara, they don't read up on Che Guevara," actor, and now director, Andy Garcia told Minnesota Public Radio. "They just assume that he was a rebel and he fought social injustice and that's as far as they know. They don't know that he . . . executed thousands of people without a trial. . . . Some people don't want to hear that." Mr. Garcia uses his first stab at standing behind the camera to tell the dark story of Che Guevara and the Cuban rebellion that put Fidel Castro in power.
The Lost City (rated R for violence), now in limited release nationwide, is Cuba's own story, told by Cubans themselves. Mr. Garcia immigrated when he was just 5; the screenplay is by exiled Cuban novelist and former communist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. It's clear from the start that the project is very, very personal. The Lost City is a sprawling, passionate, at times uneven-but always compelling-look at one family's messy relationship with the revolution.
Mr. Garcia himself plays Fico Fellove, a nightclub owner and the oldest of three brothers. He's the son of a prominent university professor (Thomas Milian), who presides over a successful, close family in 1950s Cuba. Fico's passions are for Havana and its music, but his brothers are quicker to enter the fray when talk of rebellion surfaces. Luis (Nestor Carbonell) joins in an assassination attempt on President Fulgencio Batista. Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) ends up fleeing to the countryside and joining up with Che Guevara (Jsu Garcia) and his rebel forces.
Mostly without choice, Fico does get drawn into the conflict. It's all around him, and, true to history, the revolution is thrust upon a country legitimately unhappy with Batista but unsure of the violent, "democratic" reforms of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. The revolution takes a heavy toll on Fico's family and threatens the romance at the film's center, between Fico and his brother's widow, Aurora (Inés Sastre).
While most of the cast is populated with fine, often recognizable Cuban-American actors, Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman also show up in supporting roles. Mr. Murray plays an oddball character known only as "the writer," who functions as sort of a comic Greek chorus; Mr. Hoffman plays legendary mobster Meyer Lansky.
Mr. Garcia sets the entire pageant against the backdrop of pre-Castro Havana's vibrant cultural life. Perhaps to a fault dramatically, the film is awash in the sights and sounds-and always the music-of Cuba. Mr. Garcia scored the film himself, and with a love for this music, it's easy to see why he lets it define his movie.
The Lost City has received a cool to derogatory reception at festivals and with critics, with very few willing to forgive Mr. Garcia's sometimes unwieldy direction and the perhaps overlong script, and almost all quickly dismissive of the film's politics. But although there may be some legitimate artistic gripes with the film, this 16-years-in-the-making project all but oozes with conviction-a trademark Hollywood would love, were the film not so thoroughly, magnificently politically incorrect.
Compare the lukewarm reception of The Lost City to other passion projects like George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. The latter film was certainly a more polished production, but suffered under the enormous weight of self-righteous, preachy politics and grasping attempts at current political relevance. Mr. Garcia's film sticks with history, and, for his honesty and passion, the actor-turned-director deserves far more recognition than the Che romantics in Hollywood are prepared to grant him.