Return to Ithaca presents a vivid and intense portrait of a life lived in Cuba – a film review

November 12, 2015

return-to-ithacaTo live in Miami is to know the Cuban exile experience, whether you want to or not. You can’t avoid it here. The croquetas are too good.But also many of your Miami friends and co-workers are Cubans, be they first generation Miamians or recent immigrants. It’s with this familiarity that I experienced Laurent Cantet’s moving and insightful new movie Return to Ithaca. It has yet to find U.S. distribution or even play a U.S. film festival, but I think it found the right place to premiere in the United States: The Coral Gables Art Cinema in Miami-Dade County.

If there ever is a U.S. audience more sympathetic or aware of what it means to be Cuban, it is those living in Miami. This exile community suffers a very intimate kind of loss of their homeland, and it’s with little reservation that I would urge them to seek out this movie, co-written by one of Cuba’s most important living authors, Leonardo Padura. Based on a scene from his 2001 book La novela de mi vida, Return to Ithaca shows us how Cubans on the island suffer a complex yet exquisite kind of disillusionment. Over the course of one night, a group of five older friends, mostly in their 50s and 60s, turn reminiscences into a reckoning of their friendship as they struggle to come to terms with how the Castro regime shaped their fates.

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The film finds its tension with the return of Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), a man who gave up his career as a writer for menial work in Spain to send money home to his family. After spending the past 16 years in exile, his longtime friends begrudge him to varying degrees, even though they still harbor much affection for him. He left his wife to die of cancer while he lived the life of an exile. All five of these people represent different walks of life and express both their suffering and joy of life in their own ways. Tania (Isabel Santos), who is the most bitter with Amadeo, is a doctor. Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria) is a painter, who, like Amadeo, lost touch of his craft. But, more painfully, Rafa lost it to alcoholism at home. Eddy (Jorge Perugorría) is the boisterous illegal capitalist. Finally, Aldo (Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran), is the low-key engineer whose father died from the “pain of disillusionment.” They are good people, who, like most Cubans of their generation, have been left a bit broken by the ideals of the revolution, victims of the flawed ideology of Marx.

The chemistry with these actors is so palpable a sense of catharsis jumps off the screen. All of them give passionate, heartfelt performances that are nothing short of real and visceral. Cantet keeps much of the action on a large terrace. Working in the atmosphere of the city from a distance, he sprinkles in scenes of daily life here and there. Across the street, a woman yells from a window to her cheating boyfriend downstairs. In another far off scene, four men wrangle a live pig before butchering it for dinner. And across the terrace is El Malecón, the famous seaside street that has become iconic with Havana but also provides the gateway out.

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As grim as the subject may seem, its theme is merely an undercurrent. It’s an appropriately bright film, and even though the buildings may be a bit decrepit, the characters are not, and the camera of Diego Dussuel certainly captures the beauty of all hours of the day, from the harsh shine of the afternoon, when the film opens with the group singing and dancing, to a rise of tension at dusk, then a swing toward contentment tempered by good cooking at night to, finally, a fecund reconciliation at dawn. The film only covers a day and sticks with these characters. “Variety” film critic Guy Lodge made an astute comparison to The Big Chill (read his review). Return to Ithaca feels as though it could have been a play, and despite taking its time to get the dramatic conflict going deep enough to play with deeper implications, the film never feels dull.

The film features a few in-jokes best understood by Cubans, like a scene early on where the friends sardonically chant a communist slogan, but it also has many touch points that anyone can relate with. They accept aging with a bitchy kind of humor. As Tania looks over an album of photos of their young and beautiful years, she moans, “Oh, merciless time.” They also argue over music, including that age-old divide: The Beatles versus The Stones. Music is a big conversation piece for this crew, and their passion shows that music is indeed worth arguing about. It also serves to catalyze their dynamic in a sly dramatic way before things grow personally tense over profound grudges. The screenplay writers, which also include François Crozade and Lucia Lopez Coll, have bitterness down to an art. There is a sense of jealous resentment over Eddy’s success, and it’s easy to sympathize with a resentment of Amadeo when he reveals he wants to return to Cuba for good. Back to the undercurrent, Return to Ithaca also carries a tragic sense of loss for a hollow past, and none of these friends never genuinely wish true ill will to the others but project a sort of bitterness of wasted lives and dreams falsely entrusted to what would turn out to be just another autocratic regime. There’s a vested interest in their friendship because it’s all they have.

Hans Morgenstern

Return to Ithaca runs 95 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (it does have an adult perspective on things). It opens exclusively in the entire United States this Friday, Nov. 13, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. On opening night, Cantet, Padura and Hechavarria will all attend the red carpet premiere event with a catered reception from 7 to 8 p.m. The following day, at 1 p.m., there is a director’s masterclass with Cantet moderated by local Borscht filmmaker and Sundance alumni Jonathan David Kane at The Gables Art Cinema. For details on the class, visit, the Miami Film Development Project website at filmprojectmiami.com. The Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Funny Balloons.

Finally, I interviewed Cantet ahead of his visit to Miami. To read some it, head to the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog, by jumping through its logo below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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