“This country isn’t what it used to be,” says Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria), one of the dissatisfied Cuban protagonists of Return to Ithaca. “This is something strange, and no one knows where it’s heading.”
Rafa has gathered with four old friends, all in their 50s and children of the Castro Revolution, on a Havana rooftop for a party that will stretch on until dawn. They are celebrating the return of Amadeo (Néstor Jimenez), a writer and former member of their gang who has spent the last 16 years exiled in Spain, without explanation. Amadeo didn’t even come home for the death of his wife, something that the rest of the group — the eye doctor Tania (Isabel Santos), the factory worker Aldo (Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran), fellow writer Eddy (Jorge Perugorria) and Rafa, a painter — quietly resents.
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Co-written by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura and directed by French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, whose previous films (The Class, Human Resources) have often focused on human behavior under rigorous or well-defined circumstances, Return to Ithaca is a bracing and surprisingly vocal expression of angst and frustration by people torn between love for their country and the harsh letdown that resulted from their loyalty. Tania’s two sons now live in Miami. Aldo is an engineer forced to take on manual labor because of lack of job opportunities and a son he needs to raise. No one in the movie is happy, even though the film opens with a joyous montage of singing and dancing and revelry. But in modern-day Cuba, you learn how to work miracles with life’s lemons, because there is no other choice.
No matter how badly the ideals of the Revolution have failed them, these people, weary and betrayed as they feel, have figured out a way to keep going. So why couldn’t Amadeo do the same? And why has he returned home now, like Homer’s Odysseus, after such a long absence? Return to Ithaca, which was shot in Cuba, is so openly critical that after being scheduled to screen at the Havana Film Festival (and even mentioned in the event’s catalog), the movie was yanked with no explanation.
Return to Ithaca eventually screened on the island earlier this year, quietly shown as part of a French film festival. Watching the movie, you can understand why the government got cold feet. In an era where Cuban cinema has to resort to allegories and implication in order to present any sort of social or political discourse, Return to Ithaca puts it all right into the mouths of its characters. The movie could have easily been a play, but Cantet’s camerawork and his ability to bring his characters into extreme close-up provides us with a more direct connection to their states of mind. And in the final scene, when Amadeo finally explains where he’s been and why, the complex emotions that have been churning beneath the film’s surface finally burst through but not in the way anyone expected. “This is Cuba!” Aldo exclaims at one point. “Welcome to the jungle!” Return to Ithaca makes his declaration sound sad yet strangely inspiring.
Cast: Néstor Jimenez, Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorria, Fernando Hechavarria, Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran.
Director: Laurent Cantet.
Screenwriter: Leonardo Padura, Laurent Cantet.
Running time: 91 minutes. Vulgar language. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.