Cult comicstrip artist Andrea Pazienza gave a face and a voice to the youth of late ’70s Bologna, a generation marked by drugs, nihilism, punk, political activism, student occupation and terrorism. Director Renato De Maria attempts to synthesize that world in “Paz!” But while those familiar with the source material may tune into the dazed but driven characters, others will find the shapeless film lacking a point of entry. Combining four of Pazienza’s strips but failing to develop a tangible plot, this ambitious adaptation makes much of its nervous editing and camerawork, its trippy, free-form style and edgy cast, but never engages on a narrative level, spelling problematic commercial prospects locally and moderate festival attention elsewhere.
While Italy has a strong tradition of cutting-edge comicstrips, many with obsessive followings, national filmmakers have had patchy success in fleshing them out into robust screen stories. From Mario Bava’s 1968 “Diabolik” to more recent efforts like Giancarlo Soldi’s “Nero,” Michele Soavi’s “DellaMorte DellAmore” (released in the U.S. as “Cemetery Man”) and now “Paz!,” the adaptations all were conceived as automatic cult movies but suffer from an uncertain tone and an inability to create three-dimensional characters and full-blooded narratives.
Unlike “Ghost World” or the Tim Burton “Batman” movies, for example, which inventively reinterpret their comicstrip universes for the screen, these Italian efforts are confused translations.
The first of Pazienza’s comicstrip characters and the one closest to the author — who died in 1988 at 32 of a drug overdose — is Pentothal (Claudio Santamaria), a fellow cartoonist, who at the start of the film, is dumped by his girlfriend, Lucilla (Fabrizia Sacchi). Smoking weed, hallucinating and attempting to work amid the confusion of his commune-style apartment overrun with members of a student political movement, Pentothal obsessively replays the dismissal.
However, Pentothal constitutes no more of a center to the story than the other two principal characters. Each represents different facets of Pazienza’s personality.
Those characters — all of them housemates in the same disorderly apartment — are self-serving slacker/perennial university student Fiabeschi (Max Mazzotta), who sponges cash off his girlfriend and grass off whoever’s holding, and drugged-out Zanardi (Flavio Pistilli), who, together with his inseparable buddies Colas (Matteo Taranto) and Petrilli (Cristiano Callegaro), crucifies the cat of the sadistic headmistress (Iaia Forte) at the high school where they keep repeating grades.
Director De Maria, a Bologna native, clearly has a strong personal link to Pazienza’s characters and to the city during the period, when DAMS, the local university specializing in film, music and theater, served as the gravitational center for the alternative student arts scene. The cast also demonstrates a keen affinity for the pulpy, often grotesque material, with many of the actors — Mazzotta and Pistilli in particular — clearly chosen for their cartoonish facial or physical characteristics.
But while the basic idea of depicting the artist through his creations is an innovative one by Italian biopic standards, the screenplay by Ivan Cotroneo, De Maria and Francesco Piccolo is unable to assemble its elements into a cohesive whole. The film fails to access a key aspect and one of the chief merits of Pazienza’s work: the caustic humor and acid barbs aimed at the political establishment. The stories feel patched together and inconclusive, with no through line and very little concrete incident, making the action dull and unfocused.
While avoiding the rigid dictates of a period piece, the filmmakers successfully evoke the late ’70s with a dark, grungy look. This nonspecific approach to the era also is adopted in the richly textured soundtrack by musicians Riccardo Sinigallia, Francesco Zampaglione and Meme, which reworks songs from the period alongside new compositions, effectively mixing melodic ’70s rock and raw, punky elements with a smoother, more contemporary electronic sound.