Return to Ithaca (2014)

Laurent Cantet’s Return to Ithaca creates a poignant microcosm of Cuban society as an expat returns to rejoin his old friends’ reunion.

Should I stay or should I go

by Alexa Dalby
Return to Ithaca

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

On a rooftop overlooking the stunning coastal sweep of Havana’s Malecón, a group of middle-aged people dance and sing in the afternoon sun. They first met as students doing their compulsory labour in the countryside. At first they seem happy, but as they drink, they reminisce and bicker about the past.

As bright sunlight fades into evening, their remorseless talking turns to recriminations and regrets for their broken dreams of socialism and their lost opportunities. Tania (Isabel Santos) is an opthalmologist, not the doctor she wanted to be, but there’s a much deeper cause for her suppressed anger that we discover later in the film, as gradually everyone’s back story is revealed bit by bit.

Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria) was an artist whose career was blocked, who lost his creativity and is now reduced to producing colourful daubs for tourists. Aldo (Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran) is an engineer, but he is working as a humble assembly worker in a factory. And Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), whose story arc dominates the film, is a playwright with writer’s block who escaped to Spain 16 years ago but who has now inexplicably returned to Cuba. The catalyst is the much-anticipated late arrival to the party of Eddy (Jorge Perugorría), once an idealistic would-be journalist, now someone who has made his accommodation with the system and has reaped its benefits, to the resentment of his longtime friends.

Return to Ithaca is a well-acted, wordy ensemble piece given momentum by the energy of its actors. With its single setting, it would play equally well on stage. Its characters cover the spectrum of the post-revolutionary Cuban experience. They are middle-aged people who once believed in the revolution, have lived through its consequences, the fear it created, and now find themselves disillusioned, impoverished – and trapped in what seems to them to be a disappointingly broken society. When late at night they eventually eat a meal of beans prepared by Aldo’s philosophical mother Fela (Carmen Solar), they’re joined by his son Yeonis (Rone Luis Reinoso), a representative of a young generation that feels they have no future and just want to leave, but are prevented from doing so.

Co-written and directed by Oscar-nominated and Palme d’Or-winning Laurent Cantet (The Class and L’Atelier (The Workshop)), which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), it is edited by Robin Campillo, his regular collaborator, whose own first film as a director, ensemble piece 120 Beats Per Minute, also debuted to acclaim in Cannes.

It’s a film which has depths when a twist to one person’s story is revealed as dawn breaks. But the course of all these people’s lives has been shaped by the isolationist political system and failing economy of their small island (sounds familiar?): they feel their ambitions and also those of the next generation have been frustrated as a result. Though the long night brings surprising revelations and some resolution, frictions generated by the choice – or lack of it – between staying and going are bittersweet for each of the group and their friendship.

Return To Ithaca will screen at Curzon Bloomsbury from 25 August 2017 and will be available on Curzon Home Cinema, Amazon & BT from 25th Aug and on DVD from 25th September.

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