As its placement in the Venice Film Festival suggests, “Italian South East” charts new territories, but the road it wanders down is too convoluted to allow for many meaningful discoveries. Combining documentary and fiction in a quirky travelogue that follows the smaller train stations of the Italian southeast, the quartet of helmers making up Fluid Video Crew might be cracking themselves up in the editing room, but most others will be looking at the clock. The limited arthouse release at home will be the last stop this runaway engine is going to make.
The region known as the Salentino, with Lecce as its capital, is terra incognita to most foreigners, as well as Italians. Using a sociologist posing as a reporter (Caterina Tortosa), the helmers set out to explore the oddities of an area that still has a frontier feel. Caterina interviews trainmasters, some real, some scripted, about the history of the line, while the camera moves on to passengers and assorted local kooks.
Deliberately blurring the borders between fiction and non-fiction, the stories are ultimately less about the region than a way to uncover the residents’ foibles through the helmers’ patronizing lens. There’s a man obsessed with menhirs, or Neolithic monuments (Alberto Signore), as well as a guru-like character (Vincent Brunetti) whose house appears to have come out of a Lego nightmare. But if a mood is being conveyed, it’s one of hothouse insularity and self-obsession. Only a Lebanese immigrant, speaking about the prejudice around him, breaks through the postmodernist jumble and briefly tells an involving story.
Occasionally there are glimpses of the region’s beauty, such as extraordinary red mineral formations that seem to offer a home to a silent nudist, but Fluid Video Crew was obviously not attempting to make a commercial for the local tourist board. The filmmakers handle the various media with confidence, although one senses that so much footage was originally shot they didn’t know what to eliminate. Sound quality is often faulty.