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Disco Boy

Illegal Belorussian immigrant joins the French Foreign Legion and is sent to fight in Nigeria, in this pan-European cross-breed of political topics - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival


The action starts on the Belorussian-Polish border. A coach full of visitors is warned that they only have three days to spend in the EU country, and that they must not travel to any further nations. Otherwise the consequences could be very severe. Young friends Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) and Mikhail (Michał Balicki) promptly break the rules and head towards France. They hitchhike with a lorry driver, giving him some extra cash in order to play some dance tunes on the radio, in a film where music plays a central role throughout. They fantasise about “Bordeaux”, “Camembert” and “Vache Qui Rit”, but Mikhail’s dreams are cut short when he’s fatally hit by a police boat while crossing a German lake at night, leaving his surviving friend to continue his journey towards L’hexagone entirely on his own.

Once in France, Aleksei approaches the Foreign Legion under the illusion that they will make him “French”. His superiors are well aware of his illegal status, and use his vulnerability to their advantage. German thespian Rogowski, with his scrawny body, natural lisp and puerile grin, conveys the perfect sense of fragility. The Belorussian character is repeatedly told to man up, to behave French, and is submitted to humiliating training procedures. His fellow soldiers are of various background, all presumably striving for an elusive sense of Frenchness. The atmosphere is ripe with infantile jokes, racism and lust for women. Aleksei (now addressed by the more francophone sounding name “Alex”) and the other young man are sent to Nigeria in order to rescue a group of French people kidnapped by the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend).

The story then descends into a war fable with Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Copolla, 1979) written all over it. Jungle hiding, fighting, camouflage and a lot of blood. There is abundant emphasis on the bulging eyes of the characters, particularly the Nigerian fighters (each one of them has eyes of different colours, some sort of twisted David Bowie look). A protracted fight scene inside a lake is entirely filmed on infrared, giving the film otherworldly, transcendental feel. Giacomo Abbruzzese’s first feature film (which he wrote and directed) is bursting with ruminative imagery and poetic devices. An aggressive, hard-hitting electronic score adds tension to the dreamy atmosphere. This is where Alex learns that, while he may may become French through his own blood, he might do so by shedding other people’s (particularly foreigners with a skin much darker than his).

Aleksei eventually returns to France with the other soldiers, where they have to contend with an even greater danger: being on a break from the military service. This is when he engages with French culture more extensively, including with those of the opposite sex. But Aleksei only has eyes for one elusive woman. She ultimately brings the story full circle. Aleksei’s predicament finds closure to the sound of disco music, in a cathartic dance scene that will ring bells with those who have seen Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999).

While hypnotic and technically inventive, this elliptical allegory of illegal immigration and colonialism is just too ambitious for its own sake. These two complex political topics contend with one another to no purpose. This pan-European co-production between France, Italy, Belgium, Poland has just too many ingredients. The outcome is that the complex flavours are barely discernible.

Disco Boy is showing in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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