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Return to Ithaca | 2014 TIFF Review

Shared Tendencies: McGowan’s Debut an Understated Navigation

Palme d’Or winning director Laurent Cantet continues a tour outside of France with his latest feature, the carefully constructed and gently understated Return to Ithaca, which sees the director returning to Cuba, the same lieu where he previously contributed to the 7 Days in Havana ominbus. A dialogue driven character study of several old friends reuniting after some years, the film’s minimalist focus on the everyday dramas that inform our lives is very much in line with Cantet’s earlier pieces, which often deal with life’s tendency to be defined by occupation and income. Yet this marks the first time Cantet examines the perspective of a group of people preoccupied exclusively with happenings of the past.

On a rooftop terrace overlooking Havana’s ocean avenue, the Malecon, a quintet of five middle aged friends reunite for the first time since their youth. As they wait for the final member to arrive, we begin to see a bit of their chemistry as they reminisce fondly. Tania (Isabel Santos), the sole female of the group, is an eye doctor and seems to have lost none of her abrasiveness. Aldo (Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran) does odd jobs and lives with his mother and troublesome son, his wife having left him for a rich older man that can better provide for her. Rafa (Fernando Hechavarria) is a school teacher who once used to be the outspoken one, and the latecomer, Eddy (Jorge Perugorria) is now a smooth talking businessman. The group’s main issue seems to concern the return of the prodigal member of, Amadeo (Nestor Jimenez), who fled to Spain without warning years ago, now announcing he plans to return to his homeland to rekindle his passion for writing.

As it begins early on in the evening, four of our five main characters are seen joyously dancing to rather exuberant music on the rooftop. Minor, ever-so-light cajoling ensues, though it’s clear that Tania is severely unhappy with something concerning Amadeo. As their fifth member joins them, the exultation is again renewed, but not for long. What follows is a rather dismal rehashing of dreams deferred amongst a group of friends who have been stuck running in place with no reward.

With most of their children also leaving Cuba behind, they represent a generation that may as well be a specimen preserved in amber. The title refers to the Greek island that was home to mythological Odysseus, who was never able to make it home. Obviously, it’s a reference point for the key figure of Amadeo, who disappeared to Spain nearly sixteen years prior, never to return. But, as Odysseus also learned, you can’t really go home again. Shockingly, he left behind a wife, who died of cancer in his absence, which explains Tania’s rage. But Amadeo isn’t without reason, as secrets are slowly culled from each member of this old group of friends as the night wears on.

With several international directors filming recent projects in Cuba, including Lucy Mulloy’s celebrated Una Noche (2012) and Antonio Hens’ woefully under seen The Last Match (2013), the prized perspective is that of the country’s modern youth, generally depicted as desperate to escape. Dilapidated buildings and crumbling possessions mark a country stuck in time, with resources pilfered by the moneyed tourists that flock there.

Cantet’s examination of an older generation is more complicated, less prone to easily resolving the unhappiness its characters have lived through. Bitter and resentful, they aren’t without the ability to experience joy or pride as remaining residents of Cuba, though, admittedly, they grew up during a different period, when the possibility for a greater future existed. “We studied to live better and be better,” one of them reminisces. Now, there’s no point in pursuing a profession, which is unlikely to provide any necessary resources, anyway. They’re settled into their own generation’s idealogical beliefs, both progressive and regressive, as evidenced by the abundant use of the word ‘fa**ot’ in reference to an old comrade.

Return to Ithaca is about constricted dreams, its characters obsessed with examining what could have been different had they only made different choices. It’s a film draped in regret and guilt, perhaps more so than any other of Cantet’s films, even Heading South (2005), which seems to offer the flip-side perspective of exploitation. And yet Return to Ithaca, like its troubled characters, isn’t without moments of great beauty and compelling camaraderie, as we leave them behind in the grey hues of an early morning while they break the dawn.

Reviewed on September 6th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations Programme. 95 Minutes



Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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