A noble, though not entirely successful attempt to glimpse behind the veil of a society that if not quite closed, is at least shuttered to outsiders, Laurent Cantet’s talky “Return to Ithaca” is a film whose educational value outweighs its dramatic heft. And for many viewers, that will be off-putting. Your experience will depend entirely on your tolerance for learning social history lessons through the anecdotal reminiscences and recriminations of a group of fifty-something Cubans. Ours, however, was surprisingly high. While there’s no way we can say the film made a particularly visceral or emotional impact, we were nonetheless absorbed by its thoughtful rhythms and the gradual patchwork impression it builds of a particular generation of Havana-ites. In fact, it mines lesser-seen territory twice over, as a picture of life in Castro’s Cuba, but also as a portrait of friendship within an age group who, being beyond the first or even second blush of youth, but not yet ready to dodder into retirement, are often consigned to a kind of cinematic invisibility.
Opening joyously as four friends dance around on a rooftop, singing along to an old Spanish-language pop hit in the warm Cuban sunshine, it feels initially like we might be in for a kind of light, late-in-life dramedy, but it soon settles into a more contemplative mood which couldn’t be further from the bourgeois complacency of the “Big Chill”-in-Havana vibe it first gives off. But yes, it does concern reunion, specifically that of Amadeo (Nestor Jimenez) with his old friends Tania (Isabel Santos), Rafa (Fernando Hechevarria) and Aldo (Pedro Julian Diaz Ferran) after a self-imposed 16 year exile in Spain. Amadeo has built a nice life for himself and initially there seems to be nothing but joy at his homecoming party held on Aldo’s roof. But a bitter note strikes when Tania’s mood changes and she issues the first of many challenges to Amadeo: why did he leave and why didn’t he return when his wife was dying? Tania calms herself, Amadeo remains secretive and the party returns to bantering and reminiscing before Eddy (Jorge Perrugoria), an expansive wide boy trailing American whisky and designer clothes, arrives, and the dynamic changes again.
The film unfolds largely in that one location, that rooftop, over the course of the following night, until the blue dawn breaks the next day. As those hours pass, the five friends share a meal, get drunk and sober up, and get happy and angry and sad in realistic cycles, speaking as someone who’s done the staying-up-all-night-on-a-
But, as with “The Class,” which was about a teacher and his students, but did not delve deeply into their lives outside the classroom, Cantet is less interested in a character portrait of these people than in giving us an idea of them in their social roles, and thereby building up a more general picture of Cuban society, full of mild revelations to us. Tania is an ophthalmologist who relies on gifts from her patients to survive because her salary is so low. Aldo is an engineer who now works in a battery factory, ruining his hands with spilled acid. Rafa is an artist with painter’s block who churns out daubs he doesn’t believe in to make ends meet. Eddy is the only one without money worries it seems, until he reveals his firm is being investigated and he could face jail. These are people from the professional and artistic classes, who have been working all their lives, but the bottle of wine Amadeo has brought from Spain is an exotic luxury they could not usually afford—Eddy’s bottle of whisky is clearly the spoils from his shady business dealings.
The night wears on and they reveal more of this arcane lifestyle—the active role that ideology, religion and political philosophy plays in their lives may seem quite alien to Western eyes, especially those of a younger generation. But their identities as political activists, in some case even radicals, is an unalterable fact of who they are and where they grew up. And of course, it’s not all writ against so large a backdrop, nor is it quite as didactic as we may be making it sound. Through the night they each fall out and forgive the others time and again, and even Amadeo eventually reveals his quietly moving secrets. These exchanges hint at both the power and the limits of friendship.
Shot remarkably well by Diego Dussuel, so that the airiness of the single main location is emphasized and never feels stagey, the film nonetheless has an inbuilt lack of dynamism that will no doubt frustrate many viewers. And it’s obvious that 95-minutes of a 5-way conversation is not everyone’s idea of a good time. But as a considered and illuminating look at a society rarely portrayed from the inside out, from the vantage point of a generation who bore the brunt of Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic hardship and political suppression, the film modestly succeeds. Using its characters’ memories, loyalties and resentments as vehicles, “Return to Ithaca” gently expands our understanding of life within a society that, in contrast to our own, did not even pretend to cultivate the idea that its citizens were free. [B]