It is, as advertised, the first film shot in Cuba since Castro came to power in 1959. (Our Man in Havana, with Alec Guinness, was the last, though the new U.S. open-door policy will likely bring more cinematic exploration). And Papa: Hemingway in Cuba gives us sights to revel in – buildings, cars, dusty streets, all richly evocative and seemingly unchanged with time. Director Bob Yari tells the true story of a young Miami journalist (Giovanni Ribisi) who writes a fan letter to Nobel author Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) and wrangles an invite in 1957 to visit the icon – everyone calls him “Papa” – at the Finca La Vigia home her shares with his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson).
The crew was allowed to shoot at the actual location (now a museum) and use Papa’s fishing boat, the Pilar, for a marlin expedition. Sparks, who has played Hemingway on stage in a one-man play by John deGroot, not only resembles the bearded, robust Papa, but captures the depression eating away at the man who would shoot himself in the head in 1961, less than a year after leaving Cuba. Suicide had been a Hemingway family curse, and Sparks, minus flashy histrionics, lets us see the storm roiling inside the man. “I can’t fuck; I can’t write,” he shouts at the journalist while indulging in bouts of drinking and self-loathing. Oddly, what hurts the movie most is the source material. Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died of lung cancer in 2006, wrote the script based on his own relationship with Hemingway. And Yari, perhaps out of misguided tribute, has decided to keep it. Though Petitclerc, called Ed Myers in the film, won a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for his fine 1977 adaptation of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, inspiration seems to have deserted him here. As a movie, Papa improves every time it shuts up and allows action to define character. Clunky, overripe patches of dialogue litter the film. Papa often delivers unsolicited advice: “Kid, the only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take.” In one scene, Hemingway uses a cocktail napkin to scrawl what he calls a six-word short story: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” Yup, sometimes less really is more. If only the movie itself had paid heed.