Return to Ithaca

 

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A Cuban setting for a drama that also resonates widely.

 
Return to Ithaca
 

This engaging film by the French director Laurent Cantet best known for The Class (2008) opened in 2014. Its delayed appearance here may be connected to the fact that, despite winning awards in Venice and Biarritz, the critical reaction to it was disappointing. That was probably influenced by the fact that, as written by Cantet himself and the novelist Leonardo Padura, Return to Ithaca is a work that is very much dialogue-based (it would be easy to imagine erroneously that the source material was a stage play). However, provided that the dialogue is good (which it is here) and provided that the film-making is adept (Cantet and his editor Robin Campillo are both on fine form), I have no trouble with a movie that foregoes action scenes and which in this case embraces a short period of time (less than 24 hours) and a limited location (a terrace rooftop in Havana for the most apart).

 

Return to Ithaca readily holds us because it works well on two levels. It tells of a party given by four middle- aged friends to welcome back a writer, Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), who had once been their youthful companion and who is now returning from Spain after a stay of sixteen years. He and the others (played by Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorria, Fernando Hechavarria and Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran respectively) are all looking back and feeling that life has let them down leaving old hopes and ambitions unfulfilled. This is a common enough experience for Return to Ithaca to feel meaningful to audiences who have never been to Cuba and, indeed, the film's title in referring to Ithaca is using it symbolically to suggest a return to a haven.

 

However, on the other level brought into play the setting becomes very relevant. Nevertheless, no detailed knowledge of Cuban politics and history is required for us to recognise the extent to which conditions in Havana drove Amadeo away in the 1990s and still today affect the lives of the other friends who stayed on. The concept of a reunion that leads to revelations is, of course, a staple of fiction and I am not suggesting that Return to Ithaca is a masterpiece. Yet the ensemble cast plays so tellingly and the writing is so persuasive that one is caught up in the drama on both of its levels. Furthermore, one does not feel that film is the wrong medium since Cantet and Campillo do their work so well that one positively admires the technique that supports so adroitly a story in which words do, indeed, matter. This kind of piece may not be fashionable, but that does not make it unwelcome: quite the contrary.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorria, Fernando Hechavarria, Néstor Jiménez, Pedro Julio Díaz Ferran, Carmen Solas, Rone Luis Reinoso, Andrea Dolmeadios.

 

Dir Laurent Cantet, Pro Laurent Baudens, Didar Domehri and Gaël Nouaille, Screenplay Laurent Cantet and Leonardo Padura with François Crozade and Lucia Lopez Coll, Ph Diego Dussuel, Ed Robin Campillo.

 

Full House/Orange Studio/Haut et Court/Funny Balloons/Panache Productions-Network Releasing.
92 mins. France/Belgium. 2014. Rel: 25 August 2017. Cert. 15.