French auteur Laurent Cantet stunned audiences with his Palme d’Or winning film The Class back in 2008, and returns with a much quieter, contained drama with Return to Ithaca.
Return to Ithaca examines the impact of the politically stable state of Cuba as five old friends reunite to party and catch up with one another: there’s the energetic Tanía (Isabel Santos), neocapitalist Eddy (Jorge Perugorría), teacher and failed artist Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria), factory worker Aldo (Pedro Julia Díaz Ferran) and writer Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez). Once teenage comrades at a communist work camp (all smiles as they share a photo and reminisce on the days they looked much better), the dancing and smiling quickly gives way to regret as they recall the heyday of their youth, opportunities passed up in the name of the movement and having so easily committed themselves to the fascism of Cuba’s past.
The main conflict arises when Amadeo has declared his intent to return to Cuba to live out his final days, when the rest of them wouldn’t even dream of setting foot back in, and tensions rise as the nostalgia of the past is shed for the new realities of the present, an urgency given to the film as we’re introduced to the very real and current problems each of the former comrades face in their personal lives – from their children to their own internal demons.
Cantet takes his time with Return to Ithaca, and it’s something of a slow burn as we are sucked into each character’s life over the first two thirds of the film, as they share how they’ve changed over the years and their new intentions. With a script that’s somewhat circular in nature, it’s easy to get lost in all the talk in this chamber drama, which for the most part, takes place on the roof of a terrace house in Havana (offering some spectacular seaside views that act as a worthy facade for the pressures that seethe beneath the surface).
Return to Ithaca is a slow burn – taking a little longer than necessary to build up to its final confrontation, but a film that will certainly resonate with audiences who’ve been in the same positions as our protagonists. There’s a strange mourning in the air as their old idealism completely falls apart, secrets come out and friendships are engulfed in regret. Stay till the end for a satisfactory finish, sincere in its delivery and a quiet reflection on long gone halcyon days, the tragedy of a lack of foresight, and the intimate lives that become collateral damage in the greater fight for ideals.
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