Sprinkled amid the underwritten journey and thinly gussied-up stock characters of Basilicata Coast to Coast is a lyrical, loving paean to the flourishing salmagundi of international influences that have enabled South Italy’s endurance as an elysian paragon of locale richness. But rather than ogling the Mediterranean landscape, its buxom, olive-skinned female inhabitants, or the indigenous tomato-and-cheese-heavy cuisine that has become erroneously synonymous with Italian culinary essence, first-time director Rocco Papaleo unexpectedly appropriates the spirit of his homeland’s cultural origins into a soundtrack of proudly diverse acoustic music.
The film’s core cast is comprised of four middle-aged friends who’ve formed a benignly monikered bass-guitar-keys quartet (doesn’t Windmill Sails sound like the next big thing in new age?) and have been seeking that lucky break for years by gigging at weddings and taverns and occasionally wrangling some airplay on low-wattage radio stations through their chortle-inducingly bipolar “agent” (Augusto Fornari). After de facto leader Nicola, characterized with whiskered, wide-eyed charm by Papaleo himself, scores a set at the annual Scanzonia music festival on the other horizontal end of the peninsula, the band decides to traverse the countryside by foot and donkey as a press gimmick, adventurously prepared to surmount whatever impasse they might encounter en route.
It’s as pitiful a plot as it is a ploy for attention in the film’s reality, of course, and it swiftly snowballs into predictable ersatz self-empowerment with the emergence of ancillary characters that dumbly challenge relationships between band members and provide contrived love interests (though Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s whiny journalist, assigned against her will to accompany Windmill Sails on their auspicious trek, conveniently provides a condensed target for all our seething romantic trope antipathy). When the career-furthering expedition is interrupted by incidental zaniness (bumptious bandits who wear motorcycle helmets on horseback, for instance, or an auto accident victim with a collapsed lung requiring impromptu puncture by pasta fork), it’s a welcome distraction, but when the movie adds two supporting pilgrims, both female, as early as the one-third mark, it exposes an odd lack of faith in its protagonist ensemble.
Papaleo needn’t have diluted his musicians’ buoyant masculinity. The likeable personalities of the band members—ranging from the confrontational showbiz wanna-be Rocco (Alessandro Gassman), to the blithe but conflicted Salvatore (Paolo Briguglia), to the mute, frizzy-haired existentialist Franco (Max Gazzè)—and the aural art through which they interact provide Basilicata Coast to Coast with moments of subtly joyous honesty. Buttressed confidently by Franco’s rounded, stand-up bass, fleshed out with the sinewy jazz chords of Salvatore’s rhythmically custodial nylon guitar, and congealed with the adhesive alto of Nicola’s organ and melodica lines, the Windmill Sails sound is both mercurial and familiar—a genre of music, and of camaraderie, where the influences are easy to identify (Bossa Nova, Laïkó, Spanish corridos) but the sonic summation is ineffably euphonious. Despite the ham-fisted re-visitation of well-trod material, the most egregious issue with Basilicata Coast to Coast might be the lack of numbers in the third act; the show-stopping odes to unrequited love and egg sandwiches need not didactically urge us to “Be Italian”—they so indelibly, so contagiously, are.
Basilicata Coast to Coast will play on June 4 and 8 as part of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. For details about the festival, including ticketing information, click here.