There are so many reasons to want to like Papa: Hemingway in Cuba. Unfortunately its script and acting aren't two of them. Note that I wanted to endorse this film, the first American big-screen production to be filmed in the Communist nation in a half century. Plus, there is plenty for Idahoans to anticipate, considering that Hemingway lived (and died) here and that his granddaughter, Oscar-nominee and Ketchum native Mariel Hemingway, even makes a brief cameo in the movie.
Papa has a fairly passable skeletal structure. Cinematographer Ernesto Melara ensures that the film soaks up plenty of Cuba's splendor and the film features a lovely score from Mark Isham. Still, Papa is more bones than skin—it never feels fleshed-out, sadly and ironically, dut to its one-dimensional script. Is it accurate to Hemingway's life? No doubt. But it doesn't feel authentic, primarily because its lead characters spend most of their time delivering speeches rather than engaging in dialogue. As a result, Papa's earnest cast (no pun intended) spends much of the film adrift in a sea of stereotypes.
I take little pleasure in criticizing Papa's script, penned by the late Denne Bart Petitclerc—a war correspondent, best-selling novelist and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and Miami Herald. Petitclerc spent the last 35 years of his life in Idaho, devoting many of his final days working on the screenplay for Papa, an autobiographical telling of how he, as a young newspaperman in Miami, got to know Hemingway, who was then spending most of his time in Cuba.
Petitclerc died in 2006 and didn't live to see his story brought to the big screen. My sense is that Petitclerc's script perhaps needed another guardian in his absence; and while Papa's director, Bob Yari, may have an accomplished resume as a producer (Crash), but this is his first directorial effort and it's abundantly apparent.
While the film feels thin, its backstory is rich with controversy. Actress Sharon Stone was initially slated to play Hemingway's wife Mary (the part ultimately went to Joely Richardson). However, Stone sued Yari in 2014, alleging she was asked to commit fraud against the United States government when she agreed to be in the movie. Stone's suit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleged that she was encouraged to "commit a fraud and a lie on her license application with United States governmental agencies, and to check a box indicating that she was going to Cuba on a 'cultural endeavor'" rather than to film Papa.
Suffice to say, Papa did film in Cuba in 2015, under a U.S. Treasury Department license exempting the production from most embargo restrictions. Producers were told by U.S. officials that spending would be capped (though producers have not revealed what the film's budget was). As a result, no film sets could be built and the production team had to use existing structures for all of their scenes.
When President Barack Obama set foot in Cuba in March—the first sitting U.S. president to visit since the 1959 revolution—a new era of travel and trade was ushered in for the two nations. A number of Hollywood studios instantly voiced their desire to begin film and television production in and around Havana, and with more Americans anxious to retrace Hemingway's Cuban steps, audiences will no doubt expect a compelling narrative of Hemingway in Cuba. Unfortunately, Papa isn't that film.