If you live in Miami, no doubt you’ve noticed the effect of the Castro regime from just 90 miles away. Going on more than 50 years in power, the Castro dictatorship weighs particularly heavy on the generation that remembers the revolution as it happened. Return to Ithaca, a movie that presents Cuba through the eyes of the generation that came of age with Fidel Castro’s revolution, was shot on the island by the Oscar-nominated French director Laurent Cantet and is based on a chapter of La Novela de Mi Vida (My Life’s Novel), by one of Cuba’s most famous living authors, Leonardo Padura.
The film follows five self-proclaimed “old farts” reminiscing about their friendship on a big terrace overlooking Havana's Malecón. But it’s far from sentimental. The central tension involves Amadeo (Néstor Jiménez), a man who wants to move back to Cuba after living in Spain for 16 years. He left a writing career in Cuba to do menial labor so he could send money home to his cancer-stricken wife. He never could fit in with the Spanish way of life and always yearned to go back home.
Return to Ithaca balances a very intimate story of lifelong friendship with a clear statement of making due in an anti-capitalist/anti-democratic society. It's a kind of film you would never expect coming out of the island nation. Someone in Cuba must have been worried about its message, because last December, it was pulled from the lineup of the 37th Havana Film Festival. Speaking via Skype from Paris, Cantet does not shy away from calling that cancellation censorship. “It was very deceptive for me,” the director says. “We were expecting to show this film to the Cuban audience. It was a big part of the reason I wanted to make the film.”
Though the film was suddenly dropped from the Havana Film Festival, the following April, Return to Ithaca had its Cuba premiere after all, during the XVIII French Film Festival in Havana. To call the screening anything less than epic would be misrepresentation. “I think it was the most incredible screening I ever had,” Cantet says. “It was in the cinematheque: 1,300 seats full, twice, with people waiting on the streets because they couldn’t enter, and during the film — usually I don’t stay in the screening of my films, but this time I wanted to stay — it was so incredible to hear the reactions.
"People would understand the situation before the actors would say something. They would laugh sometimes when I couldn’t imagine they would laugh. They clapped many times, and at the end of the film, we had a sort of long Q&A on the pavement outside of the cinematheque. Nobody wanted to leave, and people would come out of the screening with red eyes because they cried and were very happy to have seen the film. It was really very, very moving. Most of them recognized their own stories in the film, their own feelings.”
Like any film that can survive censorship in Cuba and speak so profoundly to the Cuban people, it cannot be overtly political. Cantet says he wanted the film to be seen as a personal story among friends. He is proud of the degree to which Cuban audiences personally related to his film. “What was interesting also is that they didn’t consider the film anti-Cuban, like I’m sure some people would like to see it,” he notes. “They really believed the film was balanced.”
Now Cantet, alongside Padura and actor Fernando Hechavarria, will bring Return to Ithaca to Miami for its U.S. premiere. It has yet to even play a U.S.-based film festival. He says of Miami: “I think it’s the best place in the States. Once more, I think it’s important that a Cuban audience sees the film even if they are not living in Cuba anymore, and I think it can give a pretty good image of the country today even if it’s already sort of a period film, because the situation has changed a lot since the shooting. We shot before the reopening of the relation between the States and Cuba. It’s already history.”
Return to Ithaca Opens exclusively at Coral Gables Art Cinema this Friday, November 13. On opening night, Laurent Cantet, Leonardo Padura, and Fernando Hechavarria will attend the premiere, with a catered reception from 7 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit gablescinema.com. On Saturday, November 14, at 1 p.m., there will be a director's masterclass featuring Cantet and moderated by local Borscht filmmaker and Sundance alum Jonathan David Kane at Coral Gables Art Cinema. For details about the class, visit the Miami Film Development Project website, filmprojectmiami.com.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.