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Cinema in Focus: ‘Papa Hemingway in Cuba’

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

There have been three monumental periods of change in Cuba in the last 100 years. 

The first centered on the Spanish-American War that was notable in 1898 for the sinking of the battleship Maine; the second was the overthrow of the corrupt Batista government by Fidel Castro in 1957 leading to the country becoming the first communist state in the Americas; and the third being the reopening of Cuba to the United States.

The one American who was both a hero in the United States and in Cuba before and after the Castro-led takeover was Ernest Hemingway. Here was a combination of American success and Cuban revolutionary; a bohemian and some would say a Bolshevik. 

As we see him in the film Papa Hemingway in Cuba, he was a man haunted by his own success and cynical about the politics of both countries that he loved.

The film captures a moment in the fading life of one of America’s greatest literary giants. For years he lived a charmed life hidden from the throngs of fans in a quiet Havana neighborhood in an oasis of greenery.

(His house is a museum today and is used extensively in the film. Some scenes were also shot in Santa Barbara.)

His loves centered on beautiful women, fishing retreats off the coast of Cuba and a downtown bar that still exists as a monument to the man called the “Floridita.”

This story is told through the eyes of Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), a young reporter from the Miami Herald who wrote a letter to Hemingway telling him of how his writing had changed the course of his life.

To his surprise, Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) calls him from Havana and invites him down to join him on a fishing trip. Stunned and star-struck, Myers accepts the offer and heads to the island paradise, which at that time was still controlled by the mafia.

Myers is slowly groomed to become a member of Hemingway’s inner circle, including being a confidant to his current wife, Mary (Joely Richardson). For anyone, but certainly a young man who idolized this global icon, these were heady days for Myers.

If being star struck gives one an unreal picture of a person’s life, then being in their inner circle can also give you the shadow side of that same life.

Hemingway was a deeply despondent man, who in 1961 ultimately made good on his many attempts at suicide.

Whether it was Hemingway or Elvis Presley in the 1950s or Michael Jackson in the 21st century, these are tragic caricatures of the almost demonic impacts of fame.

You might long to be the best at what you do, but the tradeoff of reaching the heights of public attraction is that you no longer have the freedom to walk down the street, enjoy a meal in a restaurant or even know who really likes you or cares about you.

Hemingway numbed his pain at the Floridita Bar with daiquiris, a drink named after a local beach near Santiago de Cuba.

Fame has a way of having impacts that either resolve or dissolve your life.  If you have strong grounding in spiritual and psychological values and you surround yourself with people who share those values, then you have a chance to keep a sense of perspective about what happens with your public persona.

Unfortunately, many people — including Ernest Hemingway — used their famous attributes and resources to live life as if there were no tomorrow. Slowly their lives devolve into insomnia, drug and alcohol use, failed marriages and loneliness.

Sadly learning these lessons later in life, Hemingway gives some sage advice to his protégé, Ed Myers: “Don’t make any decisions without carefully weighing every consequence. Everything you do has a price to be paid.”

Hemingway bonded with Myers over their common experience of being abandoned by their fathers. It is little wonder that the only place he was at peace was with the children in his neighborhood who gave him unconditional love and called him “Papa.”


» The emptiness of Hemingway’s life revealed his inability to experience and express love. This caused him to obsess on his decision decades before to betray the only woman who ever loved him. Do you find it difficult to experience and express love as well? Have you found forgiveness for any betrayals in your life?

» The connection that Papa and Ed had over their fatherless childhoods created solace in their relationship. Do you think this relationship healed them or allowed them to avoid the healing that professional counseling might have produced? Do you think Hemingway’s genius as a writer was based in part on that pain?

» Do you think fame is destructive? Why do you answer as you do?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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