The 1990 Cuban film "Hello, Hemingway," from director Fernando Pérez and writer Maydo Royero, is a lovely portrait of the country at a turning point, as seen through the eyes of a schoolgirl dealing with her own crises. Larita (Laura De la Uz) is a teenage orphan living with her aunt's family in a poor neighborhood outside Havana. It's 1956, the country on the brink of change. Larita is bright and brimming with life - just watch as she smiles her way through American rock n' roll, and you'll be grinning, too. Her big hope comes in the form of a scholarship to study in the U.S., which she understands would be a chance to escape poverty. But her social status works against her, and unlike the clean cut kids from wealthier families, Larita is left to struggle against a prejudiced system.
In a theme that would be echoed, in a way, in the 1995 drama "Il Postino," Larita finds herself inspired by her famous neighbor: Ernest Hemingway. Papa has come to live in a lush mansion near the girl's home, and while they never meet, just having the author nearby fuels Larita's imagination. A friend at the local bookshop gives her a copy of "Old Man," and she's captivated by the wonders it contains.
There's a brilliant scene early in the film in which the bookstore owner sits down and explains the genius of the book's simplicities: "In the depths of these simple things dwells a whole world." The movie is in part a love letter to the power of literature, and to Hemingway's direct style, and to the effect Hemingway's presence had on an entire country.
It's also a devastating portrait of a nation about to break. While messages about Communism and the failures of a class system built on the rich-poor divide are there if you choose to find them, the filmmakers push instead for something more straightforward, less overtly political. (Indeed, while the plot involves a school uprising, the names of Cuban's revolutionary leaders are never mentioned in the screenplay.) Lartia's battle with the scholarship board - namely a single woman who winces at Larita's peasant dress and lack of "proper" upbringing - can be viewed today as still relevant, and, more importantly, still dramatically stirring. The movie insists on keeping universal themes in its tale of poverty and hope.
It's not a perfect presentation of these ideas. One sequence midway through the film delves into frantic melodrama as Larita's father is fired at work and has an outburst at home; it's played so over-the-top that it's out of place with the quieter, more contemplative moments that surround it.
A more successful "loud" subplot finds Larita's boyfriend leading a mini-revolution at their school. Here, the politics get muddied, but to great effect: Larita wants no part of the uprising, and many of the students seem to be going along for the ride not because they believe in change, but because they're teenagers who see a chance to raise hell with the teachers who annoy them. Rather than draw parallels between this uprising and the Cuban revolution, the filmmakers instead opt to suggest that even at the heart of political change, some people must still deal with their own smaller, personal problems, which to them are far more important than any national upheaval.
"Hello, Hemingway" is smartly directed and written, yet the centerpiece of it all is De la Uz's magnetic performance as Larita. Hers is a film debut that effortlessly captures the optimism and heartbreak of youth; in the early scenes, she beams with a radiant smile that demands to be shared on movie screens. Larita's transformation from bubbly innocent to someone wiser, more world-weary is astounding, and De la Uz turns this little film into a great big character piece. She ends the film much like Santiago himself, roughed up by all around her but still dreaming of lions.
First Run Features brings "Hello, Hemingway" to DVD as part of its Cuban Masterworks Collection series. This appears to be the first time the film has been released on home video in the U.S. in any format.
Video & Audio
"Hello, Hemingway" suffers the same fate as many low budget foreign films of its era: the image here is somewhat washed out and grainy, with some scratches marring the print. The transfer does the best it can with the source material, and the subdued color scheme contrasts well with the more colorful shots of the sea and beach. Presenting the film in what appears to be its original 1.33:1 full frame format, First Run windowboxes the image slightly, although this may not be noticeable on monitors with greater overscan.
The Spanish stereo track is a simple affair, a pinch tinny but nothing problematic. Optional German, English, and French subtitles are offered. (Note: There is no audio menu. As the disc starts, you're given the option for Cuban, Dutch, English, or French menus. Menu design is keyed to this choice, as are subtitles, although you can change subtitles using your remote once the film begins.)
First Run has loaded the disc with several Cuban-produced documentaries about Hemingway, all of which emphasize the author's connections with Cuban life and meetings with such figures as Castro. "Ernest Hemingway's Cuba" (31:47) is a 1999 video that uses vintage films of the author to detail his adventures in Cuba. "Images from the ICIAC Archive" (8:26) presents a collection of old newsreels and newsreel outtakes; narration audio is very rough in spots, and in places where the original audio is missing (or was never produced), a simple piano score is substituted. The 1963 documentary "Hemingway" (20:17) takes a gentle approach in covering Papa's entire life. All three films feature the same subtitle options as the feature presentation and are presented in a slightly windowboxed 1.33:1 format.
In a bit of strangeness, the disc finishes with a collection of Dutch previews for other entries from Icestorm, from whom First Run licensed their Cuban line.
Considering the film will likely never look very good in any format, the transfer issues that dog "Hello, Hemingway" can be overlooked in favor of a terrific film itself, as well as a handful of interesting supplementals. Highly Recommended.