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Amadeo, a novelist suffering from writer's block, is back in Havana after sixteen years of exile. This evening his friends are waiting for him on a terrace overlooking the Malecon Boulevard. There are Tania, who despite being an eye doctor only ekes out a living; Rafa, a once major artist who has become an alcoholic and only paints daubs now ; Aldo, an honest man who, although trained as an engineer is reduced to mounting batteries in a factory. They are joined after a time by Eddy, a literature lover turned parvenu... From dusk to dawn, they will laugh, sing, dance together, reminisce about their youth, the group they used to form, the faith they had in the future and exchange about their present disillusionment. At times they will even tear each other apart...Written by
We All Loved Each Other (and our Revolution) So Much...
As a starting point, let us say that "Return to Ithaca" is not a movie that will please all audiences. This new film by Laurent Cantet ("Human Resources", "The Class") certainly does not offer a spate of spectacular, violent or erotic scenes. Moreover, it is spoken in Spanish and does not exist in dubbed version. Its target is obviously not the general public, consequently total fans of blockbusters or any other type of light entertainment fare should avoid this one. For if you do not get into the film, you are bound to get awfully bored. But if you know a minimum about Cuba's recent history and - mainly - about human relationships, "Return to Ithaca" will not only satisfy you but will end up enthusing you as it is true that in the two fields mentioned it is a masterful achievement. More generally speaking, you will remember "Ithaca" as a particularly rewarding experience given its amazing capacity to work on different levels (narrative, technical, psychological, historical, sociological) at any second of its running time, leaving you in the end with a single wish, to see it again.
One of the few criticisms made to the film is its theatrical form, giving rise to the usual (or should I say inescapable) derogatory term of "filmed play". One can wonder why the locution appears under the critic's pen as soon as there is unity of time, place and action or when the director has dared adapt a stage play ? As if cinema and theater were mutually exclusive! Don't some filmed plays contain more "cinema" than certain movies in wide screen changing settings - natural or artificial - every five minutes ? and the reverse. I personally experienced more thrills watching "chamber movies" like "Twelve Angry Men" or "Death and the Maiden" than "The Ten Commandments" and the like. So let's brush aside this phony argument and let's try and analyze "Return to Ithaca" for what it is, a powerful exciting thought-provoking apologue.
To begin with, what is the situation and who are the characters ? The time is one warm evening these days, the place a terrace overlooking Malecon Boulevard in Havana. Three friends are gathered there waiting for Amadeo, a novelist suffering from writer's block, back in Havana after sixteen years of exile. Before his coming, Tania, Rafa and Aldo drink, laugh, dance, exchange happy memories. After Amadeo finally drops in, Eddy, another seemingly jolly good fellow, joins the party, which soon... turns sour. Little by little, the five revelers' social conditions and inner feelings are revealed: Tania is an embittered eye doctor who only ekes out a living; Rafa, a once major artist, has become an alcoholic and is now reduced to painting daubs; Aldo, an honest man , does nothing better than mount batteries in a factory despite his engineer's training. As for Eddy, a genuine literature lover, he has been a self-satisfied parvenu for years...
From dusk to dawn, the complicit old friends will turn accusers; of the failed Revolution, of themselves and their past naiveté, and above all of... the four others. With a few exceptions (the dinner taken in Aldo's apartment), tensions prevail; rage breaks out : the five of them tear each other apart in a cruel game of truth.
As the day breaks, they are still together, exhausted, wondering if their friendship will survive the psychodrama they have just gone through.
And as the end credit rolls, the viewers, shaken as they are, realize how irrelevant it is to reason in terms of "filmed play". Watching people talking for the whole duration of a film is not necessarily boring. A movie will never be dull if - as is the case here - the topics broached are intelligent, if they are source of conflict, if there are hidden truths that are doled out shrewdly, if the tone varies constantly from exhilaration to depression, if there is singing and dancing and anger and wit and spite, if the camera moves are slick, if the editing is dynamic. Last but not the least when like here - the lines of dialogue signed by a great Cuban novelist (Leonardo Padura) are told so brilliantly by a pocketful of the best Cuban actors of the time (of Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría, Fernando Hechevarria, Nestor Jiménez and Pedro Julio Diaz Ferran I really cannot say which one is my favorite).
A real masterpiece, reminiscent of Tchekhov's dramas or classics of the Italian cinema such as Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other". An all the more impressive feat as "Return to Ihaca" is directed by a French filmmaker, who seems as comfortable in the circumstances as if he were Cuban-born. Highly recommended except, as I wrote before, if you are a confirmed popcorn movie lover.
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