Return to Ithaca: a Bitter Toast to Meeting Again

In a Cuban movie

From the Cuban film Return to Ithaca

By Jorge Luis Lanza

HAVANA TIMES – Directed by French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, and based on the book by famous Cuban writer Leonardo Padura La novela de mi vida, the feature movie Retour a Ithaque (2014) picks up on the existential crisis returning to the island for good involves. In an intimate setting, it is a subject that had never been dealt with up until now. The popular French director had previously tackled Cuban reality in one of the short films that make up the feature movie 7 Days in Havana (2013), along with Julio Medem, Gaspar Noe, Juan Carlos Tabio, to name a few, through the lens of dirty realism, which has been done to death nowadays.

Return to Ithaca has the merit of exploring the conflicts that arise when looking at the past, both for those who decided to leave Cuba at one point and for those who decided to stay. It looks to the past, from different angles, with nostalgia, and a conciliatory realism that is in keeping with modern times.

From the perspective of stories and aesthetic discourses about emigration in Cuban film and audiovisuals, Return to Ithaca is original and contributes a lot. The movie takes different movies that have tackled returning to the island in Cuban film and audiovisuals as references, such as Lejania (1985), by the author of the book Las iniciales de la tierra Jesus Diaz, Mujer transparente (1990), Miel para Oshun (1999), by Humberto Solas, including others that address the sociological and emotional impact of exile, that is to say, the drama of the departure and family scars, an aspect of our reality that a writer like poet Lourdes Gil masterfully handles in her essay about uprooting and exile Tierras sin nosotras.  

Return to Ithaca is not only original because it deals with this less explored side of returning, but because it also advocates for the urgent reconciliation between Cubans on both shores, separated by all kinds of extremisms, resentment, and wounds that time hasn’t been able to heal. In this regard, the movie is a redeeming piece of art that encourages greater reconciliation between the island and its diaspora.

In Return to Ithaca, Amadeu is a writer who had emigrated to Spain because of repression and the hostile environment within intellectual circles on the island during the 1980s, although the context is ambiguous here. 

Decades later, he makes the difficult and misunderstood decision to return to the island for good, an aspect that sets this movie completely apart from the movies mentioned above, where the return has only been temporary, in other words, never to stay.

This time, the long-awaited reunion doesn’t take place in a closed space, it unfolds on a rooftop. I’d like to share two possible interpretations with the reader, there is a suggestive intertextual dialogue, in semiotic terms, with the rooftop scene in Lejania.

There is a dialogue and organic connection between both movies and with Cuban-American poet and essayist Lourdes Casal, a key figure who promoted the rapprochement between Cuba and the US in the late 1970s.  For this reason, I’ll leave you with a verse from her poem Para Ana Velfort, which Isabel Santos’ character in the movie Lejania mentions.

“But New York wasn’t my childhood city, the corner where I first fell isn’t there, nor is the cutting whistle that marked our nights, that’s why I’ll always be an outsider. A stranger between these rocks, like now, I’ll always be a foreigner, even when I go back to my childhood city. I carry the immune isolation of every return. Too much of a Havana local to be from New York, too much of a New Yorker to be, even go back to being, anything else.”

According to essayist Hiralda Lopez: “Meanwhile, Amadeu doesn’t understand the journey in both directions and he isn’t up-to-date with reality on the island: you can now limit yourself in Cuba to a one-way trip. The fatal combination of the symbolic castration and rejecting the trip contribute towards making Return to Ithaca a somewhat anachronistic movie that responds to firmly rooted opinions.”

Even though Amadeu doesn’t only decide to come back to reconcile with a past full of extremisms, dogmatisms and repression suffered by Cuba’s intellectuals, which is the reason brilliant writers and artists left; he decides to come back because he needed permanent contact with his Homeland to recover his vocation as a writer. The real drama and conflict in the movie revolves around this point, which is something his friends don’t understand about his decision. 

Few movies have shed a light on this problem, the historic relationship between identity, uprooting and literary creation in Cuban film, the impossibility of writing about and rethinking Cuba from abroad, the same nostalgia that exile Jose Maria Heredia experienced in Leonardo Padura’s La novela de mi vida.

According to this author: “The trend we’re seeing in Cuban movies nowadays, which is still emerging, is the return trip, thinking about the departure and destination as something unstable and uncertain. This contrasts with the return trip up until over two years ago, and today’s movement allows us to articulate other discourses about displacement and to have a positive outlook on them. It isn’t a matter of ruling out other legitimate options, such as staying in the homeland or in exile, but rather of exploring the implications of new challenges that are emerging during the current crisis.”

Within a context where radicalism continues to exist on both shores, when emigration continues to break apart families and Cuba, movies like this one are more and more necessary, their redeeming view gives us back some hope that reconciliation between Cubans can go above borders and the barriers that separate us. 

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