In the imagination of the general American public, Cuba exists as a sort of time capsule, cut off from the world since we started our embargo half a century ago. Fitting, then, that the first American film made in Cuba since relaxing the embargo is a period piece. It's also not surprising that, though set in the middle of the Cuban Revolution, the movie is essentially about Americans, including one of the most mythologized Americans of the twentieth century, who just happened to have spent a fair chunk of his life in Havana.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is framed through the eyes of Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), who is actually screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why they changed his name. From the one grainy, black-and-white picture that turns up -- the one that ran with his 2006 obituary -- it doesn't even seem to have been a case of whitewashing. Myers is, as Petitclerc was, born in Washington, taught himself to write by retyping Hemingway's novels, and got a job as a war correspondent in Korea before taking his position at the Miami Globe.
It was there that he wrote a fan letter to Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), then living at Finca Vigía on the outskirts of Havana, which the author liked enough to write back and invite the young journalist fishing. At first, Ed is awestruck by his idol, and then embarrassed at the habit he and his fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), shared of swimming in the all-together. But soon enough he's part of the inner circle, calling him Papa, staying at the plantation, making tourist-friendly appearances at El Floridita, and downing copious daiquirís, all while Batista's Cuba crumbles in the background.
There isn't much evidence in the real world that indicates how Hemingway felt about the revolution while it was going on. As practically a tourist industry to himself, he could easily have had an impact just by making a statement one way or the other; that he didn't suggests at least an ambivalence towards the rise of Castroism.
Early on, after loyalist soldiers brutally put down an attack on the presidential palace, Hemingway curses the folly of war, which is a nice, safely ambiguous sentiment to put in his mouth. Later, though, he seems more unambiguously in support of the rebellion. It seems oddly dissonant with the character from the earlier scene, but seems a Hollywood-natural conclusion to the suspicions raised when an FBI agent (Anthony Molinari) and a mob boss (James Remar) both approach Myers to get a line on what Hemingway is up to.
But that dissonance, and the lack of any solid evidence of Hemingway's sympathies outside the movie, makes me suspicious. It's been ten years since Petitclerc died, and he's still the only credited writer, but is the script director Bob Yari shot from really unchanged from the one Petitclerc was working on? or has it been anonymously massaged into American bobo filmgoer-friendly shape?
I have the same questions about Hemingway's descent into mental illness, actually. Early on we get a thoughtful, but irascible man, re-evaluating his life and legacy in the light of his Nobel Prize and his island fame. He is a flawed, troubled man, and Richardson hits on something deeply true when she shows us how Mary internalizes the abuse of the Great Man she loves. But by the end we get a bluster of rage over his writer's block and a struggle for a handgun he wants to eat. In fact, the real Hemingway spent the last years of the 1950s with a period of intense activity, finishing A Moveable Feast and extending three other works, and he didn't first attempt suicide until early 1961, months after leaving their properties in Cuba to be expropriated and nationalized by the Castro government.
These do make for some exciting scenes, though, neatly packaged to go with our preconceived notions of Cuba and Hemingway. Some Cubans worry that lifting the American embargo will lead to tourists descending like swarms of locusts to blot out any authentic character; this movie seems to balance right at the break of that wave, between Petitclerc's own memoir and what it had to become for our consumption.
Rating: 3 out of 5