The trade embargo between Cuba and the United States, imposed in 1960, has long prevented American films from being produced on the island, so it’s very fitting that the first Hollywood project to shoot there in more than 50 years is a story that is not only very Cuban, but also very American. Based on the experiences of journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who wrote the screenplay before his death in 2006, Papa Hemingway In Cuba explores the author’s friendship with an ambitious young writer during his final years, as he struggled with depression and alcoholism.
The film opens in 1956, as Miami Globe reporter Eddie Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) tries to craft a letter to his lifelong idol. Each attempt gets pitched into the wastebasket, but Eddie’s curious co-worker and girlfriend Debbie (Minka Kelly) fishes one out to see what has him so troubled. She’s so moved by the message that she drops it into the mailbox, prompting a telephone call from Hemingway (Adrian Sparks), who compliments the boy’s technique and invites him to Havana for a fishing trip. In a world where celebrities Tweet photos of their breakfast, the idea of sending a fan letter might feel a bit alien, but there’s a certain amount of charm to these proceedings and their subsequent result that we can’t help but smile at.
At first Eddie is intimidated by the old man, whose bushy beard and barrel chest admittedly create an imposing image, but he quickly finds that the real Hemingway is shy and somewhat self-conscious. He seems almost embarrassed when a fan approaches him for an autograph at the El Floridito, where he and Eddie are drinking and trading stories, and he quickly waves off any praise for his own work.
It’s obvious that Hemingway would rather be left to his own devices, but fame has become inescapable – as Eddie tells Debbie while recounting his adventure, “his only privacy is at sea.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that this characterization of the author is likely true, and it’s easy to see how the trappings of fame – even in this time period – could create an unnecessary amount of pressure and limit one’s ability to have anything that remotely resembled a public life.
Before long, Eddie finds himself making more and more frequent trips to the island, cementing his friendship not only with Hemingway himself, but also with the author’s fourth wife Mary (Joely Richardson). “I’m not sure he knows what he’s getting himself into,” she tells Hemingway, a remark that proves somewhat prophetic as Eddie bears witness firsthand to the growing political unrest in the country. He and Hemingway are present during an assault on the presidential palace by rebels allied with Fidel Castro, resulting in the deaths of more than 40 students. Despite his prior experience as a war correspondent, Hemingway is noticeably shaken by the attack – “war is a lousy way to settle politics” he mutters – and we get the sense that his interest in the rebellion may be more personal than he’s willing to let on.
The revolution serves as a curious backdrop for a story that ultimately wants to be about a young man without a father searching for someone to fill that role. Papa Hemingway in Cuba strives very hard to be an intimate, character-driven piece about relationships, but the introduction of these external events causes the film to lose a bit of focus during the second half. It’s as if the film has suddenly begun suffering from an identity crisis, acutely aware of the type of story it’s telling, and yet aspiring to be more complex and intricate than it actually is.
But despite the somewhat uneven narrative, the core performances remain strong enough to keep us invested. Ribisi and Sparks create an authentic and genuine onscreen dynamic, with Eddie’s affection for the old man allowing him to overlook the near-constant drinking, the rampant paranoia, and the violent arguments with his wife. It’s clear that Hemingway’s health – both mental and physical – is declining rapidly, and it’s easy for Ribisi to solicit empathy from the audience as his character is faced with losing the only father figure he’s ever known.
Sparks – who first portrayed Hemingway onstage in 2005 – is also phenomenal here, accentuating the author’s famously gruff demeanor as a mask for his growing insecurities. Powerless to control his descent into madness and depression, he reacts by becoming more self-destructive, and Sparks seems to revel in spewing Hemingway’s famously profane dialogue while also relishing the quieter moments he shares with Ribisi. To call Hemingway “difficult” would be a dramatic understatement, and it’s a testament to Sparks’ talent that he can inspire the audience to care about someone who is so often unlikable.
Shooting almost entirely in Cuba adds a particular air of authenticity to Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, as the filmmakers didn’t have to bother with trying to recreate important locations and details. They were even permitted to shoot in Finca Vigia, the estate where Hemingway lived, which has been preserved as a museum – and yes, that’s Hemingway’s real typewriter featured in the film.
The downside of working in Cuba, however, is evident in the film’s production values. In order to obtain permission to shoot on the island, director Bob Yari was forced to agree to a staggeringly low budget, and the limitations imposed by a lack of funds manifest in the form of sub-par lighting that often changes between shots and an inconsistent audio mix. These are minor complaints, to be certain, but they’re frequent enough to be noticeable.
Overall, Papa Hemingway In Cuba paints a vivid portrait of an American icon – and if Petitclerc’s screenplay is to be believed, exposes more than a few secrets about the author and his contentious relationship with the US government. As Hemingway himself tells Eddie, “the only value we have as human being is the risks we’re willing to take.” More than 50 years later, it’s virtually impossible to verify whether or not Hemingway actually took and of the risks portrayed in the film – but they certainly make for damn good storytelling.
Papa Hemingway In Cuba is a fascinating depiction of the great American author's later years, anchored by a strong performance from veteran stage actor Adrian Sparks. The film's low budget results in some technical shortcomings, but they're not prevalent enough to ruin the experience.