"not an entirely successful attempt to glimpse into a society that is close to being shuttered off to outsiders"
Return to Ithaca may be lost on many, it is dependent, however, on what people’s tolerance levels are towards being given a lesson in social history, the ‘reminiscences and recriminations,’ you might say of a group of Cubans aged 50+. The film is representative of life in Castro Cuba. It’s also a portrait of friendship, with a jubilant opening as the four friends prance around the rooftop, melodically singing along to an old Spanish-language pop hit.
At first the director would have us believe that we are going to be served up an inoffensive life dramedy. It isn’t long, however, before it settles down in to something more of a contemplative nature.
Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez) has a good life for himself and initially there appears to be nothing but pure delight at his homecoming, that is until there’s a drastic mood change in Tania (Isabel Santos), who we then see challenging him over the circumstances which surround his departure, and why he made no attempt at all to return on learning the news that his wife was on her death bed.
Eddy (Jorge Perrugoria), who’s prepared to use unscrupulous methods to make money, arrives, and all of a sudden the dynamics between everybody changes. The film unfolds largely in one location, the rooftop.
The hours pass by, in which the five share in a meal together, drink an excessive amount of alcohol, sober up, then become happy, angry, then sad; all plausible, I would say, if you imagine what experiencing a full rollercoaster of emotions can be like on a night where you decided that sleep just wasn’t an option.
Palme D’Or-winner, Cantet (The Class), who is renowned for his dialogue-heavy scripts, has a great ear for finding the rhythms held in conversational language, however, he is not even remotely interested in delivering a character driven portrait of people but moreover to give an idea of what each person’s role is within a social context, in turn helping to build a general picture of what Cuban society is like.
Tania is an ophthalmologist; Aldo (Pedro Julio Díaz Ferrán), an engineer, who now works in a battery factory; and Rafa (Fernando Hechevarría), an artist with painter’s block, who has resorted to doing daubs. Eddy is seemingly the only one without financial worries, until he reveals that his firm is being investigated and he may well face time in a cell.
In a “product placement” kind of way, alcohol dictates the status of individuals; in this circumstance the group is made up of professional, artistic types, who have earned their keep all their lives. Therefore, the particular bottle of wine Amadeo has brought back from Spain is deemed a luxury none of them could afford, and Eddy’s whisky is clearly bought on the back of a dodgy business deal.
So as the night wears on more about their secret lives is revealed, including their ideologies, religious beliefs, political and philosophical opinions. Even those of Amadeo.
The film is beautifully shot by Diego Dussuel, who manages to bring movement to the single main location, so as to detach us away from the idea of it being a stage. Return to Ithaca reflects on a generation who were hit strongly by the effects of Cuba’s “Special Period,” of economic hardship and political suppression. It also analyses the power and limitations of a friendship.