THE STORY – After a painful journey through Europe, Aleksei arrives in Paris to join the Foreign Legion. Meanwhile, in the Niger Delta, Jomo struggles against the oil companies threatening his village and the lives of his family.
THE CAST – Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye, Laetitia Ky & Leon Lučev
THE TEAM – Giacomo Abbruzzese (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes
The political structure of the modern world is a fascinating landscape, particularly on a global scale. It can be easy for many to center the American perspective when it comes to the issues of nationalism and foreign intervention. Still, the international corners of the globe have this same indulgence. The insistence on where one’s allegiance may lie depending on the arbitrary borders drawn through lands can become a powerful analysis of humanity’s rigid sense of empathy. That potential of toxicity is at the heart of “Disco Boy,” as it melds an introspective character study with an exploration of the haunting effects that aggressive action by a combative state can inflict on a wide range of citizens. It’s a handsomely crafted effort that, unfortunately, feels hollow at its core.
The film begins with the journey of Aleksei (Franz Rogowski), a young Belarussian man trying to make his way to France and escape a traumatic past. After a treacherous venture, he finally finds himself in Paris without money or a passport. In exchange for a pathway to French citizenship, he joins the Foreign Legion and begins his military training. During this time, he leads a squad that is sent to the Niger Delta to combat a group of armed revolutionary activists. The head of this battalion, Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), is waging war against the forces that are exploiting the land for oil and leaving the residents with a polluted environment. They have just taken a group of French nationals hostage, and Aleksei is sent to rescue them. The encounter leaves him mentally scarred and returning home plagued by the horrors inflicted.
There is a great deal to admire in the imagery that Giacomo Abbruzzese is able to conjure with this piece. The compositions have a dreamlike quality to them, utilizing a striking frame that places the figures in positions that elicit a hypnotic grandeur. Whether being the relentless training sequences or the transcendent African dancing, Abbruzzese manages to create a captivating portrait through his engrossing filmmaking. It often comes across as a deliberate compensation for the relatively weak narrative being presented. The story loosely hangs its plot threads together in an effort to focus more on a general thematic commentary on conflicting national interests that leaves ordinary citizens as the collateral damage of exploitative, antagonistic forces. It’s an intriguing dissection that sadly leaves its characterization shallow and the pacing often sluggish.
As the central figure, Rogowski once again showcases a great talent for being an utterly mesmerizing aspect of any project he finds himself within. While this will not be declared as anything close to his more outstanding performances, there is an appreciation for how he can carry a vibrant world in his expressions. His face often fills the frame in close-ups, illuminating the emotional turmoil he wrestles with on a path towards redemption. Even if not the best example of his abilities, Rogowski is still a marvel to behold, especially given the foundation is not the strongest to build from. Ndiaye serves more of an elemental presence that is effective, if somewhat limiting. The same is said for Laetitia Ky as Jomo’s sister, inhabiting the same eerie mood communicated especially in her dancing. The performances are hard to fully acknowledge due to the screenplay’s construction, but the company does their best to make an impact.
Many points of “Disco Boy” feel as if it is on the precipice of saying something genuinely profound as it just manages to stop short of that goal. The examination of stateless persons forced to serve the state in exchange for citizenship is a worthy topic to unearth, as well as the interpersonal relationships of soldiers that feel evocative in films like “Beau Travail.” The clash between local inhabitants with a foreign unit that is driven by capitalistic greed is an ongoing struggle that should be discussed. However, these are disparate elements that are not cohesively brought together. At the same time, the attempts are compelling in the broad strokes, which are slightly elevated by the filmmaking and the central performances. The results are far from perfect, but there are scattered ideas laced throughout that keep one engrossed, especially when the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.