'Return to Ithaca' (Dir. Laurent Cantet)

“You can’t talk about Cuba without letting the Cubans speak,” says French filmaker Laurent Cantet, director this this fascinating study in the complexities of human behaviour in difficult times.
Corina J Poore

When I first got the synopsis, I have to admit I groaned. A group of old friends meeting up again to moan about their lives? Another ‘Big Chill’? But having known Cantet’s  ‘Entre les Murs’ (The Class) that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008, I felt it was worth the risk.  We have to agree that Cantet has a love of the literary viewpoint, the films are wordy, there is always debate at some level, yet thanks to his film making skills, he weaves these elements into something gripping, intensely human and effortlessly persuasive. Inspired by Leonardo Padura’s novel “The Palm Tree and the Star”, Laurent approached the writer to collaborate on the screenplay, initially for a short, but as they worked they realized, “ … that 15 minutes  would not be enough”.

The story outline? Five middle-aged friends meet up on a rooftop terrace facing the iconic ocean- hugging Malecon avenue in Havana, to celebrate the return of Amadeo, after 16 years of exile in Spain.

Yes, that is it, one very long night spent on a terrace, talking, laughing, crying, recriminating and reminiscing, and yes, quite a lot of moaning. Yet the way the characters and their stories unfold is fascinating. The power of friendship seeps through, as their broken dreams unravel and they hang onto hope, lying to themselves and others. This piece could be theatre, there it really could be dull. Here, with the superb editing and Diego Dussuel’s deft camera work, the intense close-ups, acutely sensitive timing, and Laurent Cantet’s ear for the rhythms of conversation, each scene becomes enthralling.

There is also the flavour of the place, of Havana. You can almost smell the sea breeze. It was absorbing and intimate and you are pulled in so you feel you are right there, a part of the group, sitting on the sofa made from an old Ford front seat.  The invading sounds of life from the adjoining rooftops are ever present, building up a series of textures and perspectives that play their part in the whole experience.  There are many levels being examined in this film, not just nostalgia and disillusionment.

Perhaps this is not a film for everyone, some of the reviews have been brutal, terms such as ‘lethargic’, dialogue- heavy, to the most negative review of all, from Celulloid Liberation Front, that felt it was ‘nausea -inducing’ and ‘Laurent Cantet’s contribution of the myth of Caribbean socialism.’ When you read that, you feel that they did not grasp the human element at all. For despite the inevitable political backdrop, this is really basically a character-driven film, the guilt, the dreams, the betrayals and secrets, that are so much harder to reveal to close friends whom you care for.



The translated sub-titles were adequate, but inevitably they missed a lot of the nuances and humour of the conversation. Understanding Spanish can help a bit. I do not think, as some did, that the dialogue was ‘clunky’, some of the translation maybe, but not the original dialogue, which flowed effortlessly from mood to mood. 

The performances were superb. These are a group of excellent Cuban actors who know their craft, tight, minimalist and moving.  Amadeo (played by Néstor Jiménez) is the one who returns. But as myth has shown, returning to where your heart lies, is a fraught journey.  The title is a reference to Homer’s poem of the Odyssey, where Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) the King of Ithaca, takes so long to return home after the fall of Troy that his wife Penelope has to deal with many unruly suitors who compete for her hand in marriage.  A very different fate awaited Amadeo’s wife.

Each character feels he has failed in his dreams.  Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria) has stopped painting seriously for exhibitions he can never have, and resorted to creating pretty panels for tourists. Amadeo, himself a writer, has failed to maintain his output and has writer’s block. Tania, (Isabel Santos) is an ophthalmologist whose children have fled and she earns so little she can only survive thanks to the gifts her patients are able to give her. Aldo, (Pedro Julio Díaz Herrán) who worried about his unruly son, is an engineer who can only find meagre work repairing batteries and Eddy, (Jorge Perugorria), also gave up his art to accountancy. At first, he seems to be the only one who learned how to survive in the political world of Cuba, but even the whisky he brings them is the product of his corruption. Each and every one is a child of the Revolution, and each deeply scarred by the experiences of the social and economic suffering of the crisis of the ‘Special Period’ in Cuba that began in 1989, due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Comecon, (or agreements for help that Cuba and other Communist states received all over the world). People were literally starving and this generation, full of belief and hope realized that they would no longer be able to play a part in their dreams.  

Winner at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days Award), Best Film at the Biarritz International Festival of Latin American Cinema and the Critic’s Award at the São Paulo International Film Festival, 'Return to Ithaca' is available on Curzon Home Cinema. Amazon and BT.

Director: Laurent Cantet

Production: Laurent  Baudens / Didar Domehri / Gaël Nouaille

Cinematography: Diego Dussuel

Editor: Robin Campillo

Cast: Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría, Fernando Hechavarría, Néstor Jiménez, Pedro Julio Díaz Ferrán, Carmen Solar, Rone Luis Rienoso and Andrea Dolmeadios


Official trailer: