Written by award-winning Cuban expatriate novelist G. Cabrera Infante, The Lost City is the story of the Fellove family, a prosperous and close-knit Havana clan forever altered by the transformative events of the late 1950s as the brutally corrupt oligarchical dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (Juan Fernandez) falls to the communist insurgents of Fidel Castro (Gonzalo Menendez) and Che Guevara (Jsu Garcia). Family patriarch Federico Fellove (Tomas Milian) is a college professor of liberal democratic sentiments and an innately cautious nature, an attitude and temperament he shares with his brother Donoso (Richard Bradford), a successful tobacco farmer. Federico despises Batista but believes Cuba can achieve American-style freedoms through constitutional procedures. Two of his three beloved sons disagree. Louis (Nestor Carbonell) joins a revolutionary cell of middle-class intellectuals who plot to assassinate Batista and then enforce constitutional requirements for regular and free elections. Louis's younger brother Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) is more radical. He grows his beard long and thick, dons green military fatigues and treks into the mountains to fight with Che's guerillas.
In contrast, Federico's oldest son Fico (Garcia) stands oddly apart from the dangerous political turmoil of the times. Fico owns the popular El Tropicano nightclub that showcases the finest musicians and dancers in Cuba. A stoic man who lives for his work and his family, Fico has reached early middle age without marrying. He takes pleasure in the success of his business and in the fact that he provides so many talented people a place to perform. He has become prosperous under Batista's regime and has made a close friend in one of the dictator's army captains (Steven Bauer), but he knows most of Batista's men for the thugs they are. One thinks of such literary ancestors as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, who also tried to stand apart in a bitter war before finally determining he must take sides. Or, more pointedly, one thinks of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who took refuge in a nightclub while the world tore itself apart. But there are critical differences. Butler was a scoundrel trying to redeem himself, while Blaine was a believer who had lost his faith. Fico is a political atheist. It's never clear whether he believes men can ever rule themselves with liberty and justice, but he has disdain for Batista and Castro equally. He refuses to choose sides because he sees no side worth choosing.
Like Rick Blaine with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), Fico finds a passage of bliss in the eye of Cuba's revolutionary storm. After Louis dies in an assault on Batista's presidential palace, Fico takes responsibility for his brother's widow, Aurora (Ines Sastre), and the two fall in love. But the noose of violent political upheaval gives them little time. And soon they are torn apart by the very politics Fico has so firmly avoided. Once Castro is in power, Aurora is named a "Widow of the Revolution." She doesn't want to choose between Fico and her opportunity for a position of power and influence, but he insists, and she chooses the latter. For Fico, as for Cuba, Garcia and Infante's story resolutely will not provide a happy ending.
At 143 minutes, The Lost City is longer than it needs to be. Moreover, the script contains a device that seems introduced from an entirely different kind of movie. Early on, Bill Murray appears as a character called only The Writer, a dissolute quipster in a jacket and tie over short pants. The Writer introduces himself as "a stand-up comedian who prefers to sit down." A drolly insulting man, The Writer seems so disconnected from reality I thought for a long spell that we were supposed to understand him as Fico's alternative self, an example of dealing with difficulty through jest rather than mere gritty endurance. In the end, I am just befuddled by the decision to include this character who obviously behaves in ways unlikely to be tolerated by many who do. The film's excesses and failings aside, however, I find The Lost City an admirably personal statement. Long ago Shakespeare condemned Hamlet for indecision. As moviegoers, we expect to watch films about characters who act. But Garcia has deliberately chosen to make a film about a character who refuses to act and to insist that Fico's inaction is the noblest choice he could make.