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Disco Boy ★★★★



Director: Giacomo Abbruzzese

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye, Laëtitia Ky, Leon Lučev, Matteo Olivetti

Released: Berlinale 2023

The shadow of Claire Denis looms over Disco Boy, Giacomo Abbruzzese’s stunning feature-length debut currently in competition at this year’s Berlinale. Led by the electric Franz Rogowski, this dreamy tale of fractured identity is a starkly combative postcolonial outing that establishes a new, exciting voice in European cinema.

Alexei (Franz Rogowski) and Mikhail (Michal Balicki), Belarusian immigrants with legionnaire dreams, flee the Lukashenko dictatorship in search of a better life in France. After boarding a bus full of football fans and crossing the Polish border, the pair hitchhike their way to the new future – one that Mikhail won’t live to see. Alone and with no contacts to speak of, Alex finally makes it to France and joins the Legion, a world where patriarchal militaristic ideals reign over humanity and justice.

During his first voyage to Niger Delta, Alex is tasked with rescuing hostages and eliminating a group of local freedom fighters. Their leader, Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), is seemingly the polar opposite of Alex: a defiant radical, his interview with a VICE reporter (blunt but effective humour) establishes him as a kind yet firm rebel who vouches for his liberation ideas. And yet, Alex and Jomo are almost seen as two sides of the same coin by Abbruzzese, two lost souls searching for an escape from a repressive regime.

Abbruzzese is consciously unsubtle with his influences: the film is interspersed with shades of Beau Travail and the more recent Atlantique, even going as far as directly paying homage to the iconic finale of the former. But pastiche it is not, carving its distinct voice of formal flamboyance and dreamlike empathy, connecting two humans that haunt each other with ghostly presence. There is a certain haunting quality to the film, as Rogowski’s tender masculinity is emphasized through his posttraumatic visions of Jomo and memories of Mikhail, enveloping the work in a meditative shroud.

Lensed by the prolific Hélène Louvart, Disco Boy sports a keen eye for sensuality and homoeroticism: the focus on male bodies is crucial, as the dream of becoming a citizen puts Alex and his fellow legionnaires through inhumane conditions, body and soul drained to the limit for a piece of paper. The camera follows Rogowski’s eyes as they drift away into the landscapes he sombrely passes by, while Jomo and his sister Udoka (played by artist Laetitia Ky) are mirrored through the contrast of their eye colour. It’s an effectively exuberant approach to storytelling: scenes of violence shot through discomforting thermal vision, dancing framed as an out-of-body trance, spirits of the past physically permeating every frame of the film.

In one of the penultimate sequences of the film, Alex meets a fellow (albeit, much wealthier) post-Soviet immigrant who recognizes him due to a prison tattoo. Sat at the bar, they share a moment of introspection, as Alex grieves the loss of Mikhail and, along with him, the country that abandoned him in the process. “We were wrong”, he says, drinking a glass of Bordeaux – the dream was an illusion.

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