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Novelist Amy Ephron dives into 'Atlantis'

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"What's all this I'm hearing?" demands Amy Ephron, pleasantly riled up, speaking by cell phone from her home in Hollywood, California. "What's all this about Cuba being the island of Atlantis? "

Yes, well. I had a feeling that would pique her curiosity.

A Cuba-phile of the highest order, Ephron is the prolific novelist-screenwriter-movie producer responsible for such films as A Little Princess, and the best-selling book The White Rose, a romantic adventure set in turn-of-the-century Cuba.

Last night she saw Walt Disney's animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and is responding this hot summer morning to my message about a recent ABC special devoted to the fabled kingdom that reportedly sank into the waves 10,000 years ago.

The documentary special--coordinated, not too surprisingly, by ABC's parent company, Walt Disney (which knows how to build interest in its endeavors)--concluded with an eye-opening revelation: Atlantis, a host of scholars have determined, is quite likely that colorful little island we all know as Cuba. (It matches descriptions set down by Plato. It exists near an ancient undersea structure that resembles a road. It would be cool if it were.)

"And the comparison may be valid for other reasons," Ephron allows, considering the matter from a cultural point of view.

After all, she's visited Cuba numerous times, exhaustively researching the island's history and culture as she developed the story for White Rose (recently released by Ballantine books in a "readers group version," to capitalize on the novel's remarkable popularity among book discussion groups).

"Both Cuba and Atlantis," she says, "are places that are, in some ways, preserved in time. They both have their own dogged, determined, very light-hearted character.

"Hey!" she proclaims, with a laugh. "Maybe Cuba is Atlantis!"

Ephron mentions a character from the movie: Audrey (voiced by Jacqueline Obradors), the spunky teenage mechanic who joins a team of adventurers, led by a Manifest Destiny-junky named Rourke (James Garner) and Milo (Michael J. Fox), a nerdy scholar who knows how to read Atlantean.

Ephron liked Audrey, in part because she reminded her of Evangelina Cisneros, the heroine of White Rose. A real-life Cuban revolutionary, Cisneros was rescued from prison and smuggled to America in 1897, a plan initiated by none other than William Randolph Hearst.

"Audrey actually says something in the movie that Evangelina Cisneros said," recalls Ephron, "which is, 'My father always wished that I was a boy.' Angelina's father wanted boys, too, and as the youngest, she was forced to take on that role. That's a big part of the reason she became a fighter."

In Atlantis: the Lost Empire, the kingdom is destroyed when the Atlanteans unleash a terrifying power source that simultaneously buries the place while protecting a portion of the populace beneath a magical glass bubble. The survivors form a utopian society, and immediately stop aging. According Plato, Atlantis was destroyed when Zeus summoned a tidal wave, apparently because the Atlanteans had begun to get on his nerves.

Plato, missing a great literary opportunity, made no mention of survivors or a magic glass bubble.

"In a way, though, I think Cuba does live under a magical glass bubble," Ephron says. "When you're in Cuba, you feel like you're in a culture that has been preserved for thousands of years. In the people, in the surroundings, throughout the whole country, there is a deep, deep sense of spirituality, a lightness of being that is extraordinary."

She stops just short of proclaiming Cuba to be a utopia.

"I don't think you could call Atlantis a utopia either," she argues. "At least, not until it fell to the bottom of the ocean and had no commerce with the outside world."

But Cuba does have utopian potential, she says. Like Atlantis, Cuba's history boasts an astonishing co-mingling of disparate spiritual beliefs.

"Cuba has a very old Jewish population that most people don't know about," she says. "And also a huge Chinese population. There are Chinese temples all over. Then there's the mystical, vaguely dangerous Santaria religion. Truly, Cuba is one of the most spiritual places I've ever been."

Okay, so maybe the Cuban's are the descendants of the Atlanteans.

But what about the immortality issue? Can Ephron connect that?

"Guess what?" Ephron says. "Life expectancy in Cuba is longer than most other countries. Cubans live at least three or four years longer than Americans."

Ephron does admit that no mystical power source can be credited with Cuban longevity. For that, the Cubans can thank a force that Americans have only heard about in stories.

"There's free health care in Cuba," Amy Ephron reveals. "Talk about revolutionary!"

From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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