Directed by: Laurent Cantet
Starring: Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría, Fernando Hechavarria, Néstor Jiménez
In a cinematic world full of superheroes and bombastic blockbusters with cars and explosions and whole worlds of colour and sound it’s quite nice to step back, take a few moments to breath and actually enjoy some peace and quiet every so often. There are numerous character driven stories out there that strip everything back and put the focus solely on the personal dramas and the people in front of us. Return to Ithaca is one such film. Having won the Venice Days Award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival back in 2014 it has certainly taken its time coming to these shores but Network have done a great job in acquiring such an impactful and emotional film for a new market.
Return to Ithaca mostly takes place on a single rooftop looking over Havana in Cuba. It’s a strangely intimate setting considering the wide open space that gives views of surrounding buildings and a look into everyone else’s lives. But on this one rooftop most of that doesn’t even matter. This is a story both of community and the wider world. Friends have come together to reminisce about days gone by, their journeys to get where they are today and how all roads seem to lead to each other. No matter where they go in the world or what they do, they always have each other. Or do they?
Laurent Cantet’s script and direction has an intimacy that truly reflects the relationships between the main characters. Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez) has returned to Havana after spending nearly two decades away in Spain. This is a cause of relief and tension between the group as clearly they all still care for him deeply but his seemingly selfish decisions and actions cause his friends to question his life. Tania (Isabel Santos) is especially harsh on him, having been so close to his sick wife. She passed away and he never returned to say goodbye before it happened and Tania has never understood why. She tries to smile through the pain but there’s something there that keeps niggling away at the back of her mind and it all boils to the surface. It’s a very real representation of friendship and the inevitable ups and downs of knowing someone for decades, and while you have so many good times to reflect on there’s always going to be bad ones too.A lot of Return to Ithaca focuses on art and writing and culture as a means of escaping reality. These are people that are inspired by the world around them but also find themselves wanting to escape it. It’s that difficulty of your heart always being at home but it not necessarily being the best place for you. Eddy (Jorge Perugorria) is an interesting example of how life can corrupt someone despite being surrounded by good people and Aldo (Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran) and his family show what it’s like to deal with racial tensions and how they’re treated differently. There’s a lot of subtlety to the depths of Return to Ithaca but when you examine closer it’s a real struggle for all of them whether black or white, if they’ve stayed or gone, and whatever their social status and employment is. There’s this sadness of success never quite being what they imagined.
Rafa (Fernando Hechevarria) is the one that mirrors Amadeo the most, but both have taken very different paths to bring them back to that rooftop. You get the sense that while Amadeo took his chances the others didn’t, or maybe they never had them in the first place. Considering how difficult Cuba was when they were growing up, anyone who managed to escape was considered very lucky, yet here Amadeo is – too late for some and too early for others. The real tension and anger isn’t between the friends but towards the country and what lifestyle they’ve been dealt. They’ve all arguably done the best they can in the circumstances and while they love the people in their lives, they clearly wish they could have achieved more and been more. But it’s that never-ending question if the grass really is greener on the other side? That’s something many of us can relate to whether Cuban or otherwise.
Return to Ithaca really hits home and gives the viewer a lot to think about. We’re dropped in to these conversations and then we leave. It’s not a finite beginning and end. These lives will go on long after we stop watching and you’re left wondering whether this is just a cathartic chat or a real catalyst for change. I guess we’ll never know. You don’t need to know all about Cuban history because all the emotions and relationships translate to any language and any situation. It’s a movie definitely worth your time and is one of the most thought provoking pieces I’ve seen in a while.
Return to Ithaca directed by Laurent Cantet is at Curzon Bloomsbury and available on Curzon Home Cinema, Amazon & BT from 25th Aug and on DVD from 25th Sept