“’Papa: Hemingway in Cuba’ is important but not quite a cinematic page-turner”
Director: Bob Yari
Starring: Adrian Sparks, Giovanni Ribisi and Joely Richardson
“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” (2016) – In two ways, “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” feels like an important event. First of all, director Bob Yari’s film is allegedly the first American movie shot in Cuba since 1959, and he captures several memorable and gorgeous shots of the Havana skyline and various neighborhoods for the audience. As the movie played, I felt fortunate to witness it. The Cuban backdrop becomes a brand new, wondrous discovery for the audience, and I imagine that it is not unlike one peeking into East Berlin (in person) just after the wall came down in 1989.
Secondly, the movie chronicles the experiences of a journalist named Denne Bart Petitclerc’s who befriended Ernest Hemingway, beginning in 1957. Petitclerc’s extraordinary opportunity to meet this literally legend provides the audience the same chance through this movie. Petitclerc is actually named Ed Myers in the film and is nicely played by Giovanni Ribisi. Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) and his wife Mary (Joely Richardson) take to Myers right away, and the movie volleys between Miami and Cuba as Ed travels back and forth to the Hemingway “compound” for multiple visits.
Ed gravitates to Hemingway like the father he never had, because his dad orphaned him when he was only four. Ironically, Hemingway’s friends nicknamed him “Papa”, which seems utterly appropriate on a personal level for Ed. During the first few scenes between Ed and Ernest, Sparks’ on-screen portrayal of the man appears spot-on. He is wise and thought-provoking, and Ed listens to every one of Ernest’s casual words, because the chance of something completely profound might be spoken while conversing about fishing, women or travels. These are some of the best exchanges in the movie. In fact, at one moment, Ernest pulls a miraculous trick for Ed by writing down an entire story with just six words on a cocktail napkin.
Speaking of cocktails, Hemingway also presents his less than glamorous-side, as he displays his appetite for drinking too much, arguing with Mary and delving into paranoia. Many of these sequences get nasty and unpleasant, but the collective they usually say: don’t get too close to your heroes, because you may not like what you see. At the house, poet Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub) mentions to Ed that Hemingway can be – at times – “the meanest son of a b*tch you’ve ever seen” but also is a loyal and gentle friend. Shipman adds that Hemingway is a genius, so one cannot expect that he should act like an ordinary man.
Unfortunately, as the narrative plays on, the movie feels rather ordinary and a bit of a soap opera. Hemingway’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and although the movie does reveal some insight into the darkness of his personality, less and less of his reflective philosophy appears on the screen. These might be shades of the man, but frequent and ugly verbal quarrels with Mary do not translate into an overall satisfying experience. Still, “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” has a lot to offer, especially for anyone curious about Cuba or Petitclerc’s experiences, but the film is not quite a cinematic page-turner. (2.5/4 stars)