'Return to Ithaca' ('Retour a Ithaque'): Toronto Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran, Isabel Santos, Fernando Hechevarria and Nestor Jimenez in "Return to Ithaca"
It's a slow yield but not without rewards

Five friends gather on a Havana rooftop to dance, drink rum and make sense of the past and present in Laurent Cantet's contemplative drama

Most people at one time or another have been stuck at a group gathering where all the other guests go way back and their shared recollections make them members of an exclusive club. You might smile politely and pretend to be interested, but let's be honest, it’s a bore to be on the outside. Which makes it a surprise when, after Laurent Cantet's Return to Ithaca starts out as one of those frustrating no-access parties, this reunion of five middle-aged friends on a Havana rooftop almost imperceptibly transitions into a richer, more emotionally expansive experience.

There's no denying that the talky drama demands patience. But it's nonetheless a lovingly made film that acquires unexpected poignancy as it airs both the spiritual surrender and the festering anger of a generation, taking stock of their disillusionment with a country that has failed them. In simplistic terms, it's a politically charged Cuban version of The Big Chill. Instead of a death, it's the collective loss of hope that serves as the catalyst for blunt self-examination here, while the comfort of friendship remains, albeit often tested.

Starting with his trenchant 1999 debut feature Human Resources, Cantet has always been a committed social realist. That vocation remains at the forefront, even if it entails a lot of pedagogical groundwork in this collaboration with the Cuban literary critic, screenwriter, journalist and crime novelist Leonardo Padura.

However, a certain amount of historical and cultural background is a necessary step in assembling portraits of these orphaned children of the Revolution. So even if parts of the film are a slog, those are balanced out by personal insights and universal reflections on mid-life reckoning with regret, frustration, compromise and outright failure.

The pointed Homeric reference of the title makes no mystery that the Odysseus of this story of Amadeo (Nestor Jimenez), a once-important writer just returned from 16 years of self-exile in Spain. The occasion is a welcome-back party at the home of Aldo (Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran), primarily on his rooftop terrace overlooking the city's snaking seafront boulevard, the Malecon. But while the evening starts with dancing and merriment, Amadeo's reluctance to explain his abrupt departure all those years earlier casts a cloud in the balmy air, in particular his failure to return when his wife was dying of cancer.

His harshest judge is the one woman left in the group, Tania (Isabel Santos), an ophthalmologist barely scratching out a living in the new Cuba, embittered that her sons have fled to Miami. The others have been similarly shafted by the economic downturn that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Rafa (Fernando Hechevarria) is an artist and recovering alcoholic too broken by the climate of fear to paint. The more accepting Aldo is an engineer forced to take factory work. His hands are scarred by battery acid, his wife has moved on to more solvent pastures and his son is looking for the first available exit.

Only flashy, good-humored Eddy (Jorge Perugorria) has managed to turn the restrictions of the Special Period into opportunity in the finance sector. An unapologetic sellout, he abandoned his roots as a gifted writer, but now appears likely to pay the price for his shady business practices.

The single setting and the ebb and flow of conversation from easy banter and reminiscence through scalding recrimination to painful confession make Return to Ithaca feel like a stage play that's barely been opened out. But cinematographer Diego Dussuel injects buoyancy into the static situations; his camera dances around the uniformly excellent actors with exquisite lightness, capturing the subtle gradations of the dusk-to-dawn sky, and moving in for probing closeups as secrets are shared.

Cantet also allows evocative external elements to filter into the group's awareness — neighbors fighting across the way; a pig being butchered in a courtyard below; a baseball game across town. One revealing moment is simply a brief but tender glance cast by Amadeo at a beautiful woman drying her hair on a nearby balcony.

This doesn't compare with the lucid French studies of character and milieu that put Cantet on the map — Human Resources, Time Out, The Class. It's also perhaps by its very nature a film that will have little to say to young audiences, as indicated by the characters’ repeated identification of themselves as "old farts." But the human dimension of this compassionate group snapshot creeps up on you, and it's worth sticking around for that.

Production companies: Full House, Orange Studio, Haut & Court Distribution, Funny Balloons, Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinematographique, in association with Backup Media

Cast: Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorria, Fernando Hechevarria, Nestor Jimenez, Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran

Director: Laurent Cantet

Screenwriters: Leonardo Padura, Laurent Cantet, freely inspired by Padura’s novel, “The Palm Tree and the Star”

Producer: Didar Domehri, Laurent Baudens, Gael Nouaille

Director of photography: Diego Dussuel

Editor: Robin Campillo

Sales: Funny Balloons, Orange Studio

No rating, 95 minutes.

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