Sometimes a film can demand too much from an audience. Such is the case with “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” a pseudo-documentary/drama/biopic that depicts the real-life relationship between the legendary author and a Miami newspaper reporter who comes to befriend the Pulitzer Prize winner toward the end of his life.
In what is touted as the first Hollywood film to be shot on location in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, director Bob Yari shows us a gorgeous pre-Castro Havana, with its stately, white-colonnaded buildings, inviting sidewalk cafes, tourists and locals enjoying sun-kissed days along the oceanfront promenade and booze-fueled nights at the local watering holes, and an array of dazzling 1950s automobiles in nearly every color of the rainbow.
Yari was also granted permission to film inside the author’s home of nearly 30 years, the stately Finca Vigia, where Ernest Hemingway penned “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” and which is now a national museum. You want time to drink in every square inch of the place, connect with its most famous resident on even that most abstract level. Oddly the film does not allow us that luxury.
Into this paradise arrives the young Miami Globe reporter Ed Myers (in real life Miami Herald reporter Denne Bart Peticlerc, played here by Giovanni Ribisi). Abandoned as a child in a Seattle department store by his father during the Depression’s aftermath, the boy finds comfort in Hemingway’s books by transcribing all of his stories word-for-word in order to learn spelling, grammar, typing and, well, how to write. The reporter eventually pens a gushing letter to Hemingway (played by Adrian Sparks, who resembles the author quite effectively), who telephones to praise the young man’s verbiage and invite him down to Cuba to go fishing. Myers arrives in Cuba, where “Papa” (as Hemingway is affectionately known) picks him up via his beloved fishing boat, the Pilar, and the two are off for a day at sea. They instantly bond and soon Myers has found a father figure in his mentor, and Hemingway has found a new “son.” Seriously?
The story further plays out against the earliest days of the Cuban revolution led by law student Fidel Castro (who is never seen nor mentioned by name, save for a montage of newspaper headlines via the opening credits). His band of rebels battles the soldiers and secret police of the Batista regime, which summarily executes these enemies of the state in cold blood. The context of this epoch is never established; the plight of the poor and oppressed Cuban people is given but a passing glance by the filmmaker in a lone scene.
If you know little or nothing of Hemingway’s complicated upbringing and tormented life — his struggles with alcohol, depression, religion and marriages in the wake of his emergence as one of the world’s greatest writers — this film will ask you to take a Herculean leap of faith. The alcoholism combined with severe depression ultimately destroyed his ability to write (“When the words don’t come anymore, what do you do about that?” he asks rhetorically at one point). His loving relationship with his fourth (and final) wife, Mary (a reporter for Time and later the Chicago Daily News, played by Joely Richardson) is also a disturbing one as depicted in several awkward bursts of couples’ rage. There is so much more to the overall story that cries out for exploration and explanation, neither of which is granted by the filmmaker nor the script (written by Peticlerc, who died in 2006).
A distracting subplot centers on the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover and the mafia, and the fact that Hemingway knows about Hoover’s penchant for wearing women’s clothing and can’t quite keep the secret. His punishment? The IRS audits him to the tune of $40,000 while FBI agents seek to destroy him by planting evidence of rebel gun-running on his fishing boat. They will parade him in handcuffs before the entire world, they will!
And so it goes, in a film that is beautiful to look at but lacks clear vision. What do we glean from all of this? What are we left to ponder? The characters detail their sad, put-upon fathers, beaten down by badgering wives. The big, bad U.S. government torments island-dwelling, pistol-toting authors (Hemingway is forever brandishing the weapon, proclaiming imminent suicide; in sad reality, he would take his life at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, some 18 months later under much less flamboyant circumstances). The Cuba that once served as Hemingway’s refuge from the storm is disappearing into the madness of politics.
And we’re left wondering how we — and Hemingway — arrived at this place.
Yari Film Group presents a film directed by Bob Yari and written by Denne Bart Peticlerc. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R (for nudity, adult language and some violence). Opening Friday at local theaters.