Disco Boy, the debut feature film from Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese, marks an interesting moment for arthouse cinema. Abbruzzese offers up an edgelord take on Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail, taking a tale of the homoerotic French Foreign Legion and moving it into the modern day. Specifically, the film tracks Aleksei’s (Franz Rogowski) quest to join the FFL in search of a better life. The Legion offers the unique promise to any foreigner, legal or otherwise, that in exchange for their service, they will be awarded citizenship. Aleksei’s path to battle is marred by pain, from his tortured entry into France to the grueling treatment he faces training for the Legion. Rogowski is by this point an established darling of European cinema, and it’s easy to see why in Disco Boy — he speaks in hushed, determined tones that speak to a mystery viewers will want to unlock. He possesses a cerebral presence, playing the worn-down Aleksei with a naivete that softens his hard angles.
At the same time as all this, in the Niger Delta, a group of guerrillas under the name MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) are fighting a war against foreigners intent on taking their region’s resources. Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), a charismatic figure, leads the community in their war, helped along by his sister Udoka (Laetitia Ky). The siblings share a distinctive feature — one mismatched golden eye, which seems to connect them on a deeper level than even blood; in an early scene of the two dancing around a fire, it’s demonstrated that the two seem to have something resembling a profound spiritual connection. Jomo believes he was born to be a dancer at nightclubs, if only he were “born on the other side.” The film’s first half, then, attempts to endear the audience to players on both sides of the coming conflict. Soon enough, the Legion enters the Niger Delta, and our two protagonists end up face to face, where they must learn to reckon with the ways they are bound up in one another’s course.
Abbruzzese, though Italian, grew up all over the world. The director’s history in Palestine informs many of his politics, which feel woven into the film’s very fabric, but their presence is so insistent that it can feel like they are being outright yelled at by the audience — the film’s metaphors, if you can call them that, aren’t exactly subtle. It’s hard to fault the guerillas in this film for defending their land from those who would seek to exploit it, and Abbruzzese takes care to ensure that his audience understands exactly who is in the right at all times. To that end, Aleksei, throughout the film’s second half, is haunted by his experience in the Niger Delta. The audience watches as the dominoes of stoicism set up in the first half come tumbling down, leaving an Aleksei who must learn to let his guard down in order to understand what this haunting means.
Of course, it’s not as if the subject of colonialism demands subtlety; it certainly isn’t subtle for those under imperialism’s iron grip. And the discourse is clearly something that Abbruzzese feels deeply about, Disco Boy operating as an earnest attempt at reckoning with the destructive legacy that it has left. However, the result is that it often appears the film has nothing more to say than “imperialism bad,” which is hardly a revelation. It’s strange for a film that approaches its material with such seriousness to also be so obvious in its narrative/thematic points, and so untrusting of its audience. This isn’t to say that Abbruzzese’s product isn’t a beautiful object — it absolutely is — but that the simplicity of its messaging seems at odds with its presentation. In the film’s most striking sequence, the legion invades the guerilla’s hiding place in infrared, and the battle that plays out captures something of the texture of Predator or Aggro Dr1ft. Of course, even a second-rate Beau Travail still has the upper hand on most films, and the project does see the seeds of a director who could truly be great. But as a psychedelic trip onto either side of an imperialist conflict, Disco Boy simply feels out of place in its own skin.
DIRECTOR: Giacomo Abbruzzese; CAST: Franz Rogowski, Laetitia Ky, Leon Lucev, Matteo Olivetti; DISTRIBUTOR: Big World Pictures; IN THEATERS: February 2; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.