Director: Laurent Cantet
Cast: Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría, Fernando Hechevarría, Néstor Jiménez, Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran
Watch Return to Ithaca online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / BT
When it comes to film titles, Return to Ithaca isn’t the most attention-grabbing offer you’ll get this weekend. “Where is that?” you might ask. Or “If I haven’t seen Ithaca, will I understand the sequel?” But this is a thoughtful drama about exactly that: one man goes back to Havana to rediscover his former life, reuniting with friends. Over the decades, though, Cuba has changed. He’s trying to live the sequel that they’ve all seen. And they wouldn’t recommend it.
To say the result is a low-key affair is an understatement: director Laurent Cantet situates almost the whole 90 minutes of this film on a single rooftop, as the five mates reconnect and gaze out over the city. After all, what else is there to do, other than guess what the score of the local game is from the distant crowds? Or admire the tiny cacti growing in the corner?
The gang reminisce and remind each other of the happy times they once shared, dissecting their hopes and, as the evening wears on, admitting their disappointments. It’s a familiar conversation for those of a certain age, one that could easily become stale and repetitive. The script recalls a stage play, which emphasises just how much the film must rely on its cast to work. Fortunately, Return to Ithaca has a stellar ensemble.
There’s a veracity to the observations and quintet’s interactions, led by Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), a writer who fled the country for Madrid when they were all much younger. The downtrodden figure sharply contrasts with the loud, exuberant Eddy (Jorge Perugorría), a businessman caught up in the capitalism emerging from the Communist past. Between them are quiet worker Aldo (Pedro Julia Díaz Ferran) and failed painter Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria), who’s supported by the taciturn Tanía (Isabel Santos).
Their group dynamics are immediately believable, even before we see the inevitably photo of them all together, and the tensions between them slowly prickle their way to the surface. Of course, Amadeo’s departure has something to do with the death of Tania’s friend. Of course, it’s not just the painter who’s a frustrated creative suppressed for so long by a regime that any sparks of ideas have long gone. Of course, they’re all disillusioned with their lives.
Cantet crafts an intimate atmosphere that allows each person to have their moment in the spotlight – not just because they all get a scene or monologue that focuses on their own source of unhappiness. And the actors perform them with real humour and pathos, with the vulnerable Hechavarria and the tough-as-nails Santos particularly standing out. The director frames the whole thing against the visible backdrop of a changing urban sprawl, a place that once encouraged their left-wing ideals, only to build a regime upon them that quietly trampled on their ambitions. Should they be nostalgic or bitter?
It’s that inability to reconcile the past that makes their futures unclear – a theme echoed by the introduction of Amadeo’s son, who is as frustrated as they once were with his current lot. Are they all dreamers of better lives elsewhere? Or is this something Cubans can never escape, no matter where they go? Sunshine turns to sunset turns to dusk. They’ll all still be there the next morning.