A Great Performance From Franz Rogowski Cannot Save a Derivative Debut [Berlin]

Feb 20, 2023

Young Belarusian Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) is impatient for a better life in Europe. Coming from a country under dictatorship and with very strong Russian ties, the political isolation of which has made it suffocating for the younger generations, he is seduced by the idea of a borderless, communal whole where everybody counts for something. The audience first meets him on the bus to Poland, pretending to be a soccer fan on his way to a game in order to get a temporary visa. But five minutes into Giacomo Abbruzzese’s “Disco Boy,” he makes a run for it, together with his buddy Misha (Michal Balicki). 
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Central to the convictions of “Disco Boy” is the relationship between the self and other, as articulated through ethics and politics. By making the protagonist Belarusian chasing after an ephemeral Europeanness, Abbruzzese follows in a long tradition (post-1989) of European cinema renegotiating both its borders and the social mobility of its residents. Even though such narratives were most prominent around the late 90 and early 2000s, and boomed again around the refugee crisis which hit the Balkans and Central Europe hard in the 2010s, issues of migration are not any closer to reaching their cinematic resolution, much less in real life. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Aleks, after losing his friend to a border police shoot-out, opts for the only available option for a white ‘European’ with no papers; that is, to join the French Foreign Legion.
With these three words in particular comes one supreme reference: Claire Denis’ 1999 modern classic “Beau Travail.” Even if the majority of that film takes place in Djibouti and “Disco Boy” moves between France and the Niger Delta, both share the same disposition towards enigmatic relations, male bodies, and dance. In fact, some scenes in “Disco Boy” are so deeply saturated with inarticulate, molten desire, that it becomes outright impossible to imagine the existence of this film without that of “Beau Travail.” Plot-wise, the two are distinctly separate, since Aleksei unwillingly and unknowingly forms a bond with a guerilla soldier (Jomo, played by Morr Ndiaye) he ends up killing, a bond which will materialize in unexpected ways. From that alone, it becomes apparent that Abbruzzese has something more extraordinary in mind. 
After Aleksei crosses paths with Jomo, his world is no longer the same: it expands, includes dream-like episodes, heavy alcohol intake, and flourishing desire. This transition is captured beautifully by Hélène Louvart’s (“Beaches of Agnes”, “The Lost Daughter”) kinetic camerawork which transitions between ‘real’ and ‘oneiric’ as smoothly as a simple pan or track would. Her wondrous touch films Rogowski as a troubled man who’s somehow been re-enchanted: by elongating the takes, she makes every crease in his face tell a story. Every gesture of the actor, however stilted or free, becomes a shorthand of an emotional state he dares not express. No doubt Rogowski shines brightly in this role—he’s known for his physical acting and portraying tacit protagonists has become his speciality lately (“Luzifer” or “Great Freedom”)—but seeing the way Louvart films him causes ripples of delight, most probably saving the film from a decisive failure on a conceptual level. 
While the Italian director is keen on phrasing the relationship between the white and black protagonists as one of “magic realism,” the term that’s become consistently overused, or at least utilized in contemporary European films as a get-out-of-jail-free card, as if the author’s intentions are enough to make it work on a visual and ideological level. Well, they’re not, since the film world itself has to be big enough to encompass both the magic and the cinematic “real.” In other words, that sense of magic needs to be seamlessly incorporated, rather than forced. “Disco Boy” belongs to the latter case scenario. 
The script makes more poignant points about colonial history and the post-colonial present. Most of the time, “Disco Boy” balances the ethnic and cultural discrepancies between the characters in a rather smart way. It’s also clear that a lot of consultancy assured that the scenes set in Nigeria would be authentic and shielded from fetishization. One of the film’s most arresting sequences is a traditional fire-dance, orchestrated by renowned Nigerian choreographer Qudus Onikeku, while feminist afro-punk artist Laetitia Ky plays the role of the dead man’s sister who haunts Aleksei. For the character of Jomo, Abbruzzese casts Gambian-born Morr Ndiaye, who himself was imprisoned by Nigerian guerillas during his migrant trip to Europe at a young age. This particular detail becomes important since Morr is a first-time actor and admittedly had to be convinced to take the role (according to the film’s press kit) because of the traumatic flashbacks to his own previous experiences. 
Even if Giacomo Abbruzese has already made a few celebrated short films and some mid-length documentaries, it’s refreshing to see the stakes so high on his first fiction feature. All the necessary bits are there: Rogowski, Morr, and Laetitia, Louvart’s cinematography, and the electronic club classics by Vitalic; and yet, “Disco Boy” feels flat and ungiving. The script itself carries the obvious marks of its doctoring at a couple of prestigious festival residencies, and the film fails to imbue this tailored content with much fire aside from secondhand smoke. One Franz Rogowski cannot keep the flames alive alone. [C-]

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