French director Laurent Cantet on his Cuban film Return to Ithaca

November 15, 2015

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The Coral Gables Art Cinema may have a hit in its specialty programming. They have scored the U.S. premiere of Return to Ithaca, the latest film by the Oscar-nominated French director Laurent Cantet based on and co-written by Cuba’s most prominent writer Leonardo Padura, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As I noted earlier in a review of the film (Return to Ithaca presents a vivid and intense portrait of a life lived in Cuba – a film review), it’s a profound portrait of what it is like to live under the Castro regime and all its history, which spans more than 50 years.

We had the opportunity to interview Cantet over Skype while he was still in Paris, ahead of his recent visit to Miami for the film’s premiere. We spoke about his personal interest in Cuba, and this story in particular. We also talked about his film-making techniques. For instance, why do his films have no musical score? Here is some of our conversation…

Hans Morgenstern: What interested you and making this film, from a personal level?

Laurent Cantet: I went many times to Cuba, and there was a feeling of falling in love with the country — it happened quite fast for me — and of course people I met there. I met a lot of interesting people who really wanted to speak. I felt their story was very important for me because even if I’m a little bit too young to have been involved in what happened in Cuba, there is a sort of mythology of Cuba for every French guy from the ‘60s, and this mythology is so far away from the reality that you discover when you go there. I think it was interesting for me to confront the reality of this mythology. Also I had a feeling I could share their story, too, because it’s not just a question of nationality. I think what they experienced during all this time was something so human and so involving for them that there are a lot of things I could share, especially the disillusion. I’m 55 now, and I … I don’t think I a lost my ideals, but I think I have a colder way of thinking than a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing you always face when you are in Cuba, especially this generation, people from 55 to 60 years old. They have been raised in the atmosphere of the revolution, the schools were revolutionary. Their way of thinking was really marked by this revolutionary feeling, and they really believed in it, and after 50 they had more doubts about that.

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I think the rooftop where much of the film takes place is a brilliant setting. The Malecón and these little glimpses of Cuban color, from how the city looks to how the people act. How did you come to choose this setting?

I didn’t want to make a film that takes place in different places in Havana. I wanted to focus on the stories of the characters, and be close enough to just look at their faces, listen to the way they speak, so I thought a sort of theatrical setting would be the best solution for that. Then, I wanted to find a place where I could feel the city, and of course, a terrace for that is perfect. It was also based on one chapter of Leonardo Padura’s book, La historia de mi vida, en español, where a man comes back from Spain and meets his old friends on a terrace, like this, so we started from this, and I decided to stay there, especially because I wanted to have the feeling of the city without having a touristic point of view of it. As soon as you arrive in Havana, you are facing all the clichés you can imagine, all the old American cars, music everywhere, all the flags, all the signs and all that would have been difficult to avoid if we would go downstairs, and I like the situation of the Malecón, which is really the heart of the city, where people meet at night, where they dance, speak, sing and make love sometimes and have this point of view of the sea because the sea is a frontier for them and sometimes it’s very appealing. They would like to go through, and sometimes it’s scary too, so I think this feeling is pretty strong, especially at night when the city becomes just a black hole.

The music all comes from the scenes. I also don’t think you had a music score for The Class [his 2008 Oscar-nominated film]. Why?

I tried, but I couldn’t manage to find space for it. Here it would have been the same problem because they speak a lot, and they listen to music, so I didn’t do more than that. Especially because I think it’s important to have the sound of the city that changes according to the hour of the day or the night, and I prefer to focus on this sound, trying to build an ambiance that gives the feeling of the city more than adding music that would destroy it.

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You have a strong cast of Cuban actors. Was it easy to convince them to appear in this movie?

It was quite easy. I saw some actors because I didn’t know many Cuban actors, but I didn’t meet much more than the ones who were in the film because they were so involved in the process, from the first moment. I felt that we would do something great together, and it was very moving to see how important the film was for them, and how they wanted to be in it. For example, Isabel Santos, she told me, ‘Usually I try to hide myself behind my characters. I don’t want people to know who I am, to know how I feel. I’m just an actress. I do my work, and I try to embody something.’ And here she was very surprised to finally build a character on what she is herself, and she didn’t try to avoid that.

I see you had a commercial release in France. How has the reaction been there?

The press was excellent. It was not a blockbuster, so we were not expecting one million entrants, but the numbers were quite good, something close to 100,000. That was pretty good for this kind of film. Even in France you had a lot of people coming out of the theaters crying because I think the film speaks of something universal in us. People can understand it and share it with the Cubans.

Do you have hope a U.S. distributor will pick it up?

That’s something I would really like. Yes, of course. I think the moment is the right one, too. I’ve been surprised. All my other films have been sold in the States, except this one.

Do you think other cities outside the Miami in the U.S. will understand the movie?

As well as the French audience, as well as the Spanish one, the English one. The film has been released in many countries and has had a pretty good reception. People could really understand it and really get moved by it, so why not the States … At the same time, I’m sure for American people it’s also sort of a fantasy. I think that, of course, on both sides, we’ve been influenced by propaganda and having a point of view that comes from inside I think is interesting.

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Cantet also shared his feelings about the film’s rocky road to a triumphant screening in Havana and how he feels about showing the film in Miami, a city rich in Cuban exiles. You can read all about that in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog, by jumping through its logo below:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Return to Ithaca is currently playing exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. All images are courtesy of Funny Balloons, except the on-set image at the top, that came from here.

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

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