As the downbeat and depressing story of a group of heroin addicts in a northern Italian city circa 1980, Massimo Pirri’s film might well be summarised as Panic in Needle Park or Requiem for a Dream all’italiana.
Like the writer-director’s earlier L’immoralita – in which an escaped paedophile embarks upon relationships with a woman and her 12-year-old daughter – it falls into that littoral zone between art and exploitation.
For while dubbed awkwardly into English – with lots of not quite convincing bad language that sometimes veers between ‘flip you!’ and ‘fuck you cunt!’ approaches – and making heavy use of a soundtrack sourced in its entirety from The Pretenders’ eponymous debut album, it also makes for uneasy exploitation fare by virtue of taking a comparatively realistic, non-sensationalist stance in its tale of two junkie lovers, Marco (Helmut Berger) and Pina (Corinne Clery).
Though the message that hard drugs mess you up certainly comes through, with a heavy sense of inevitability about the failure of Marco’s fantastical plan of coming to have so much heroin they could lie in it, contrasted with their daily realities of hustling for that next fix and ripping off or being ripped off by their contacts and clients in a dog-eat-dog way – both also lying and cheating on one another, friends and family repeatedly – there’s no particular moralising or preaching evident.
Rather, it’s just how junkies are, their love for the needle paramount, as the image of Pina shooting up into her genital area attests.
One of the most interesting sociological aspects of the film, besides some suitable grim industrial / post-industrial locations is the inclusion of a bored teenager from a wealthy family who indicates that he tried heroin before cannabis and believes that injecting is surely healthier than smoking, as a challenge to official discourses.
The film’s in-between aspect is compounded by its cast, with Berger equally at home in Visconti films (although The Damned is perhaps as much Naziploitation as Salon Kitty), The Bloodstained Butterfly and Beast with a Gun, while Franco Citti, who cameos as a local drugs boss, had moved from Accatone to become a familiar poliziotto face.
Dubbing makes the quality of their performances difficult to assess, but there is no question that both men look right for their roles – sadly because of his own drugs problems in Berger’s case.
Though making an attempt to be down and dirty, Clery is perhaps that touch too glamorous.
Francesca Ciardi of Cannibal Holocaust makes a brief appearance as a drug pusher.
Pirri’s extensive use of the hand-held camera, imparts a fly on the wall sense to the proceedings and conveys the edginess of the characters and their milieu. Some more self-consciously showy moves and compositions elsewhere indicate he was not just an amateur, as can be a risk if the viewer does not ‘get’ the raw handheld aesthetic, wrongly adjudging it mere amateurism.
Not a pleasant experience, but certainly an intriguing one.