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.


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.


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.

*  *  *

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.)

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.

Return to Ithaca 1266 x 612_0

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.


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.)