Cuba: An Ithaca Stuck in Time

Veronica Vega

From Return to Ithaca.

HAVANA TIMES — Thanks to alternative digital channels, I was finally able to see the film Return to Ithaca, suggestively censored during the past Havana Film Festival.

Directed by French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, co-written by the director and renowned Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, the film centers on a group of friends who become reunited in Cuba: Tania, an ophthalmologist played by Isabel Santos, Rafael, a painter brought to life by Fernando Hechevarria, Aldo, a “naïve” engineer portrayed by Pedro Julio Diaz and Eddy, a successful manager embodied by the renowned Jorge Perugorria.

The stage is the rooftop of a building in Havana, where the friends have met to celebrate the return of Amadeo (played by Nestor Jimenez), an old, common friend whose writing career was cut short when he emigrated to Spain.

Screened only one day in Havana’s Chaplin cinema (during the recent French Cinema Festival), the film, evincing both skill and sobriety, develops a story based primarily on dialogue. But the characters lack the consistency that is indispensable for that challenge, and far less the depth required to dredge up truths lost in the mental labyrinth, as is the case in real life: in the midst of confusion, negation, pettiness and inconsistency.

During the long get-together, where fears, lies and pains come to the surface, the protagonists do not appear to confront one another with their burden of inner conflicts and the interpersonal extension of these conflicts: they express their decisions and even their doubts as though they had studied these beforehand. The street parlance and curses are not believable, something which is even more problematic when they are meant to carry symbolic weight: “but my life here was real, and, to be able to write, I had to remember that life, and the last thing I wanted to do was remember. I wanted to erase my memories.” “Back then, everything we did was historical, we were writing history, us!” Then there are the truths that discredit and reaffirm themselves in a single argument: “There were people who made up all kinds of stories abroad, things that never truly affected them personally: that this was the country of constant humiliation, that they were persecuted here…”

The actors try to give psychological depth to these beings that almost feel real and human, fascinating us with stories that are entirely common, particularly among Cubans.

When the main course is delivered (as in all good crime thrillers) near the end, the truth officially revealed there strikes us like a very faint light, removed from any concrete context, and not only because all of the criticisms made point towards the past:

– The witch-hunts of young men who had long hair or listened to rock music

– The Special Period, “when people were starving, lived without electricity and were nuts, plunging into the sea on a washbowl to leave the country…”

– Lastly, the “breaking news” that Cubans live in fear, that they choose to keep quiet or betray others out of fear, that they can even emigrate out of fear.

This information is far too incomplete, omitting the fact that there were also and there are still people who confronted and confront this fear, that exile, opportunistic survival, lying, corruption or resignation have never been and are not our only options.

The generational contrast essayed with characters such as Aldo’s mother or teenage son, who, like most belonging to Cuba’s new generation, is surprised Amadeo has returned to stay and says the he “wants to go,” also does not manage to complete the picture, faded by the nostalgia for a country that never was (not for the country that isn’t), for the other truth that Cuba’s official cinema does not say nor will ever say is that the practices that it finally decriminalized (such as prostitution, homosexuality and class differences) also did not manage to change anything.

Like every movie about a given reality, Return to Ithaca is also the untold story of the flesh-and-blood individuals who chose to keep quiet, lie, be candid or leave the country, in order not to lose the right to be part of the included, while they fought, as they could, defended those films whose censorship demonstrates that Cuban cinema (like the real, flesh-and-blood island), seems to be stuck in time, as Cuba’s present continues to be a taboo.