Credit: Locarno Film Festival
by Ben Flanagan Film

Il Legionario | Hleb Papou

August 18, 2021

Training for riots in blue and red gear, the police force, as depicted in Il Legionario, are made to look like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. But there is little playful energy in Hleb Papou’s feature debut, an extended version of his 2017 short of the same name. Daniel (Germano Gentile) is a riot cop for Italian police, and his career puts him at odds with his family, who immigrated from Africa some years earlier. Daniel’s family, especially his brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso), resent his work, and with good reason. In the opening scene, we see Daniel running through clouds of smoke to beat unseen figures. His familial opposition only grows when he learns that he will soon be sent into the occupied block where they live to perform a mass eviction. You see, in Rome, coming home isn’t that easy. 

Daniel is forced to suffer something of a double consciousness: the ostensible camaraderie and pride of the force set against the discomfort he expresses to his girlfriend at being the only Black man in the squad, at having the nickname “Hot Choc,” and at otherwise being provoked by his team under the auspices of being pushed to train harder. We see the cops discussing which race is best to sleep with, and all manner of other incidents which elucidate their obvious bigotry. Daniel is scalded by his family for associating with such types, but never becomes a truly active lead character himself, only engaging  in minor subterfuge as he attempts to stop the force from discovering his link to the home. 

Coming less than a year after Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet, it’s difficult not to think of the John Boyega-starring Red, White and Blue, which followed real-life cop Leroy Logan’s efforts to reform the Metropolitan Police from within. Papou shares McQueen’s visual penchant for shots that linger in the middle distance, but the Italian filmmaker has little interest in investigating the social systems that might push Daniel into the space of uncertainty that he spends the film occupying. 

Instead, Il Legionario plods along, characterizing the occupied housing block through do-gooder signifiers like a candlelit vigil and a cringey performance at the house by a mustachioed acoustic guitarist. It continually talks down to its audience, despite presenting a well-worn ideological dilemma: “When they were building the colosseum, we were swinging clubs,” says Daniel’s brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) to his son, in one of a number of portentous jabs at meaning that feel more like dialogue from an id-pol-baiting laptop commercial, underlined by a doomy score and wide-lensed shots of the city landscape. And so, while Papou inhabits the buildings and rooms of his characters well, he never summons the feeling of a real city beyond those walls, even as the script (which he shares credit on with Giuseppe Brigante and Emanuele Mochi) does its best to explain Italy’s swing toward fascism.

Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.