Darkness lurks in Hemingway’s island paradise
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba
Directed by Bob Yari
Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Adrian Sparks, Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly
“Never meet your heroes” is the cardinal rule broken by reporter Ed Myers, the protagonist of Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, a largely true-to-life depiction of Ernest Hemingway’s sunset years. It’s 1957, and in the sepia-toned newsroom of the Miami Globe, Myers sweats over the latest draft of a fan letter to esteemed writer and recent Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway. A short time later, Myers receives an unexpected phone call from Hemingway himself, warmly inviting him on a trip to Cuba, the writer’s adopted home.
When we first meet Hemingway in person, looming into view at the helm of his fishing boat, he seems to have successfully carved out a slice of reclusive island paradise. Soon, Myers is accompanying Hemingway and his wife, Mary, on pristine beaches and swimming in their opulent mansion. Myers is swiftly adopted into the family fold, with the suitably-nicknamed Papa playing the paternal role that Myers, abandoned as a child, all too clearly craves.
Yet if this unique personal and professional mentorship feels too good to be true for Myers, that’s because it is. Hemingway, it soon becomes clear, is battling demons inside and out. Fearing that his writing talent is fading, and with the strong stuff never at more than arm’s length, Hemingway quickly becomes fitful, erratic, and prone to outbursts, particularly aimed at his wife Mary, who slots uncomfortably into the role of antagonist. Meanwhile, the slow but inevitable slide into revolution continues outside, with spinning newspapers serving to provide context around Castro’s uprising. Myers faces inner conflict too, though his struggle over divided loyalties — between the Hemingways in Cuba and the love life he left back home — is the film’s least inspiring sub-plot.
It is in this complex interplay of personal, professional, and political drama that the film falls a little short. The emerging revolution provides little more than an out-of-focus backdrop, with the exception of a thrilling scene in which Myers and Hemingway find themselves on the front line of an early gun battle. (“War is a lousy way to settle politics,” laments a beleaguered Hemingway in a bar afterwards.) Aside from the generally darkening mood (and Cuba’s tropical storms provide plenty of pathetic fallacy), these different strands don’t mesh very effectively until the end.
The film’s ambition in trying to tell several stories at once can’t be faulted, but we are left wanting a little more of each. Yet, as with the recent profile of the Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, biopics are necessarily constrained by the nature of their subject. Thus, the ageing Hemingway’s own volatility results in a narrative which is uneven in its pacing and uneasy in its tone, but the film probably all the more visceral and compelling for it. Even the slightly overwrought presence of Myers as protagonist — including a voice-over narrative that tends towards the saccharine — is excusable, since ‘Ed Myers’ is the pseudonym of Denne Bart Petitclerc, who wrote the script based directly on his own experiences.
This first-hand experience is noteworthy not just for the authenticity it brings to the film’s plot and its evocative rendering of Casa Hemingway. Petitclerc’s direct retelling enabled the project to be classed by the U.S. government as a documentary, which apparently makes it the first Hollywood feature film shot in Cuba in 45 years. It was worth the wait: the backdrops, whether buildings or beaches, are invariably vibrant.
Taken together, these production values grant the audience privileged access: both to an embargoed island, thanks to the on-location shooting, and to a great author’s faltering mind, thanks to Petitclerc’s sharp recollection. Due to the clunky clumping together of different storylines, the film’s whole is no greater than the sum of its parts — but those individual parts are weighty enough to make Papa a worthy watch.