What do a Belarusian emigrant and an African freedom fighter have in common? It’s a question that Giacomo Abbruzzese’s feature debut, which had its world premiere in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival, answers in a beguilingly magic-realist and digressive way that sort of adds up, even though it requires a lot of good faith from the viewer to make it do so. To illustrate its strangeness, Disco Boy could be loosely described as a mash-up of Beau Travail and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, two very different movies. While both are firmly anchored in arthouse history, neither resembles the other, and it’s that contrast—the rich potential opened up by the space in between—that’s in play here.
The opening, which serves as a kind of mood-setting overture, presents a vision of sleeping Black men in a primitive natural environment. We then cut to a vision of intoxicated white men in a primitive urban environment: a busload of rowdy Belarussians are on a coach trip to Poland for a football match. Their status as unwanted guests is made clear when immigration offers inspect their passports and sternly remind them of the expiry date on their tourist visas. Nevertheless, two passengers, Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) and Mikhail (Michal Balicki), are unfazed and slip away at the earliest opportunity.
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The two friends seem themselves as pioneers (“Those who are afraid stay home,” they say), and their real destination is France, where they plan to settle and rebuild their lives. That dream is soon shattered when Mikhail drowns during a river crossing, and Aleksei arrives in Paris alone and lost without his wingman. With no income and, more importantly, no documentation, he joins the notoriously taxing Foreign Legion, an institution that will turn a blind eye to his illegal status if he’s up to scratch. And after passing their stringent entry requirements—part endurance test, part frathouse hazing—he is inducted and sent on a tour of duty to Africa.
Running parallel is the story of Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), who leads the eco-positive rebel ground MEND, who stand for the emancipation of the Niger Delta and are “the number one enemy of the Nigerian government”. While Aleksei jumps through hoops for his punishing commanding officer, we see Jomo take part in ecstatic shamanic dances with his sister Udoka (Laëtitia Ky), and it takes quite some time, and not a little patience, to see how these two stories will ever intertwine. This they finally do in an extraordinary sequence, filmed with thermal imaging, that engages both men in a fight to the death, from which Aleksei emerges victorious but traumatized. These mental scars are exacerbated when he returns to Paris, and, on a visit to a nightclub, sees (or imagines) that Udoka is there too.
It sounds strange and it is strange, since Aleksei and Udoka have never met, but there’s an instinctive bond between the two that introduces an alluring undertow of mysticism and, for reasons far too long to get into here, back up the film’s seemingly incongruous title.
It’s a bold change of tone that, on reflection, doesn’t quite work other than to find a new angle on the subject of military combat and PTSD, but Abbruzzese’s dynamic visual style is extremely convincing in the moment (Navid Lapid’s 2021 Cannes Jury Prize winner Ahed’s Knee operated on a similar level). It helps as well that Rogowski—a big presence in Berlin this year with his charismatic appearance in the Panorama title Passages—has the chops to carry it off: the camera clearly loves his fascinating angular features (has the phrase “unconventionally good-looking” been canceled yet?), but there’s a soulfulness about him that really gets under the skin.
Some might, and probably will, write it all off as pretentious, but, even if it is, this is the precise kind of pretension that cinema feeds from and thrives on: a trippy flex of the imagination that creates indelible images and strange new connections in the brain. That’s pretty good going for a first feature. The exciting question now is, what will Abbruzzese do next?
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