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A tough but tender portrait of Ernest Hemingway in decline

Bob Yari’s awkward but affecting film “Papa: Ernest Hemingway in Cuba” is the first Hollywood movie to be made in Cuba since the revolution. You’re actually seeing its actors disporting themselves at Ernest Hemingway’s estate Finca Vigia.

The film is offered as first-person testimony by its scriptwriter to three things about Hemingway’s residence in Cuba toward the end of his life.

1. His gun-running in support of the revolution.

2. The FBI’s campaign to discredit a Leftist Hemingway who knew too much.

3. The gay rumors about J. Edgar Hoover that were the reason for that FBI campaign.

Breaking news bulletins, these aren’t. Gun-running has been part of Hemingway narrative since “To Have and Have Not” (see Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the movie). Hemingway’s paranoia about the FBI – as well as Hoover’s omnidirectional character assassinations – are old news. As is the still unproven but now folkloric contention that Hoover and his FBI aide and constant companion Clyde Tolson were lovers.

The only part that makes the film important is the fact that it was made in Cuba with as many authentic Hemingway locations as possible. And that does indeed make the film unique and unlike any other Hemingway movie we’ve yet seen. To say that it’s the best autobiographical film about him is really only to say how utterly awful it was in Hollwyood when someone actually thought that Chris O’Donnell could play him as a young man.

Hemingway’s general bad luck in the movies was a predictable outgrowth of the Hemingway industry. A brilliant conspiracy of image building began before World War II and he cooperated with it fully for the sake – one assumes – of being the richest and best-known and most honored writer of his time.

It is the very clumsiness of this movie that makes it work. That’s because it purports to be the true story of an orphaned Miami reporter who found himself a kind of deeply troubled instant family with Ernest and Mary Hemingway while they lived in Finca Vigia and struggled with the author’s severely declining literary and sexual potence.

We begin by watching him on the eve of his 59th birthday. Eighteen months later, in Ketchum, Idaho, he put a 12-gauge shotgun to his forehead and pulled the trigger. It was 33 years earlier that his father put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. Two more of his children, besides Ernest, committed suicide. Hemingway asked his mother for his father’s suicide gun as a keepsake. She sent it on. (To understate, this was a family with a dark shadow life.)

What’s touching about this movie is that it’s a tender and protective but honest autobiographical exploration written by Denne Bart Petitclerc, the former Miami reporter who wrote the film that was made of Hemingway’s posthumous book “Islands in the Stream” (starring George C. Scott as a very theatrical version of “Papa” Hemingway). What’s truly significant here is that the part of Petitclerc’s own history that neither the film or its publicity tell you is that Petitclerc was, for a time, the story editor of the TV show “Bonanza” and the creator of the Michael Parks TV series “Then Came Bronson.”

Petitclerc is Hollywood through and through. His version of the young reporter’s relationship with the Hemingways has the conviction and the authenticity of a Hollywood screenwriter, at the end of his life, trying to get something true down on paper for a film before his life was over. (Petitclerc died at age 76 in 2006.)

The Hemingways we see are played by Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson. He is unable to write. He drinks a lot and his marital partner casts public aspersions on his bedroom performances when she matches him drink for drink. They are loving with each other when they can be but when he’s in his cups, his ego and macho posturing come out and she rips the slats out from beneath all of it, no matter who else is around. (For other Hemingway marital marauding see any number of Hemingway stories and adaptations.)

What works in “Papa” is the tender awkwardness of the young reporter’s hero worship of Ernest Hemingway, one of the most admired writers who ever lived. The most interesting thing by far when all of America was presumed to be in Hemingway’s literary shadow is the degree to which young writers attached themselves to his ideas of what writers’ lives and sentences should look like. (Use few words, run with bulls, sling the bull in cafes, get photographed by Life magazine if possible.)

That there was a real – and by this time tortured – writer underneath all that makes for a good story when the teller is someone whose hopeless thrall to his idol is turning into disillusionment and pity.

Giovanni Ribisi plays the young reporter. He’s an actor who is frequently better than his roles. So is Richardson who plays Mary Hemingway (much more movie-star glamorous, of course, than the real woman). Sparks isn’t bad as Hemingway. He may not have Hemingway’s face but he has the writer’s gut and, impressively, the sound of his voice. (Listen to the few recordings of the writer’s voice. Sparks is uncannily similar.)

Put them in the real Cuba in this stumbling but earnest script about an idolater’s rue and disillusionment and there’s a real story about the real tragedy of Hemingway’s reputation once the absurd hype and overinflation could no longer be justified.



3 stars (Out of four)

Title: “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”

Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Adrian Sparks, Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly, James Remar

Director: Bob Yari

Running time: 109 minutes

Rating: R for language, sex and nudity.

The Lowdown: Young Miami newspaper reporter is befriended by an aging Ernest Hemingway.

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