“Old farts’ gatherings don’t interest the young,” muses one of five reunited friends in Laurent Cantet’s tragicomic character study “Return to Ithaca.” It’s debatable, however, whether more seasoned viewers will be much more compelled by this thoughtful but rather lethargic examination of dreams deferred and relationships interrupted in politically fragile Cuba. Taking place over one balmy Havana evening and barely leaving the city-center roof terrace where the bittersweet, middle-aged get-together is being held, this airily shot talkfest doesn’t want for sensitivity, but overestimates viewers’ investment in a quintet of prickly characters whose personal histories take the film’s entire duration to assemble. A letdown from the Frenchman following the imperfect daring of 2012’s English-language debut “Foxfire,” “Ithaca” should nonetheless secure select arthouse distribution.
While superficially appropriate to a story of a long-delayed homecoming, the Homeric symbolism of the title might strike some as a tad grandiose for a film that trades principally in intimate personal grievances. Inspired chiefly by one character’s arc in Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s novel “The Palm Tree and the Star,” Cantet initially approached Padura — with whom he became acquainted via his contribution to the portmanteau pic “Seven Days in Havana” — with the idea of adapting it into a 15-minute short, before concluding that the material merited more expansive treatment. Not all will agree, though at any length, the structure and tone of the piece seem a more natural fit for the stage, where the fixed location and circular, incrementally revealing nature of the friends’ arguments might accrue more concentrated tension.
Cantet has made this kind of conversation-driven script sing before: “The Class,” his magnificent 2008 Palme d’Or winner, was a hyper-verbal affair, its heady drama intrinsically contained in the characters’ opposing uses of language and their consequent miscommunications. Working without regular co-scribe Robin Campillo (who remains on board as the film’s editor) for the first time since his 1999 debut “Human Resources,” Cantet has fashioned a Spanish-language script with Padura that is expressive but not especially witty or flavorful. The five friends speak openly and bluntly, but their direct confessions often feel pat and short on subtext. After the slight clunkiness of “Foxfire,” perhaps Cantet’s strengths are not best served by working outside his mother tongue.
In any event, as long-held secrets begin coming to light, it’s the story’s particular political context — as well as Cantet’s expectedly light touch with his actors — that prevents matters from tipping into soap-operatics. The Odysseus of the piece, if you will, is Amadeo (Nestor Jimenez), a fiftysomething writer returning to Cuba after sixteen years of exile in Spain. The circumstances dictating his extended absence are explained only in the film’s penultimate scene, but it’s clear from the get-go that Amadeo and his pals are literal children of the Revolution whose spirit of cultural and political rebellion has been dampened and even endangered by the social and economic restrictions of the Special Period.
Where Amadeo fled, his former comrades have stuck it out with scant success. Uninspired by the present political climate and minimal demand for his work, painter Rafa (Fernando Hechevarria) has put down his brush. Another writer, smooth operator Eddy (Jorge Perugorria, first among near-equals in the dedicated ensemble), has abandoned his art for a more lucrative career in accountancy, though corrupt professional practices are catching up with him. Feisty ophthalmologist Tania (Isabel Santos) barely ekes out a living wage as she pines for her two grown sons, who have emigrated to Miami. At least she still gets to practice her trained profession, unlike the party’s host, engineer turned factory worker Aldo (Pedro Julia Diaz Herran) — who, nonetheless, seems the most placidly accepting of his lot in life.
Their situations emerge in a range of conversational formations as night drapes itself over their panoramic view of Havana and its coastline — beautifully captured in soft, sun-faded textures by d.p. Diego Dussuel, who does much to alleviate the claustrophia of the setup. Over ninety-odd minutes over semi-playful bickering, bitchy reminiscences and the airing of resentments both petty and profound, it becomes clear that the friends are less angry with each other than they are with themselves for neutralizing their youthful ideals — and even that anger, in turn, isn’t quite equal to their still-smoldering rage against the machine.
The film gathers emotional momentum as the cowed rebels finally begin to see themselves and each other for who they are as opposed to who they were, but there’s a fair degree of tedium to wade through before we get there. As yet another character begins a line with the dread words “Do you remember…”, auds may feel less like they’re at a south-of-the-border “Big Chill,” and more like uninvited diners at a soiree where they know none of their fellow guests. “You can count on us to talk bullshit — it’s all we have left,” says Rafa at one point, and not many observers would disagree.