Berlinale 2023 review: Disco Boy (Giacomo Abbruzzese)

Disco Boy is a provocative and intelligent debut that will put its director firmly on the radar.”

Dark and light, black and white. Polar opposites are at the heart of Disco Boy, the dazzling and ambitious feature debut by Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese. Tackling themes like illegal immigration and the devastation in a post-colonialist world, Abbruzzese injects a hefty dose of magic realism into a story of two people (quite literally) coming together somewhere on the cosmic plane to make a point about finding yourself and your place in the world, and about the loneliness one often finds in that place. Exquisitely shot by Hélène Louvart, who once again shows why she is one of the best cinematographers in the world right now, and thrust forward by a pulsating electronic score by French electro producer Vitalic, Disco Boy falls short of masterpiece status because of an imbalance in the two halves it tries to bring together, but is nevertheless an exciting transition from documentary filmmaking to fiction for Abbruzzese.

Disco Boy first focuses on Aleksei (a mesmerizing Franz Rogowski, but when is he ever not mesmerizing?), a Belarusian ex-convict on his way to a football match in Poland with his mate Mikhail (Michał Balicki). They look the part, but do not share the interest of the rowdy crowd in their bus: for them this is the first step towards France, sneaking off as soon as they cross the Polish border to hitch-hike their way towards the promised land. One of them will not make it. Aleksei does though, and he joins the French Foreign Legion in hopes of attaining French citizenship after a few years of service. For a drifter like him, the training routines of the Legion provide stability and consistency, and through them calmness.

The film then shifts to the Niger delta, where we meet Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), a young rebel leader fighting against the oil companies that threaten the existence of his village, if he is not busy fending off inane American reporters trying to get an interview (a scene that feels somewhat out of place, but then so does the reporter in question). He also has to deal with issues on the home front, specifically his sister Udoka (Laëtitia Ky), who many a time sneaks off to the city to go dancing all night long. Jomo can relate to her urges though; he confesses to a fellow rebel that his dream is being a dancer in a nightclub, a ‘disco boy’ indeed, and he and his sister perform a ritual fire-dance in one of the more breathtaking scenes in the film. Jomo and Udoka are marked by a bodily imperfection in that they have mismatched eyes, one dark and one light. When Jomo’s rebel group takes a group of French hostages, his and Aleksei’s worlds colliding becomes inevitable.

Louvart shoots this collision with heat cameras and up close, making the jumbled confrontation in (mostly) black and white take on a symbolic meaning as well as laying the foundation for the ideas that are to come next. Although Disco Boy is technically structured in three acts, this is where the plot tips from a story about two men trying to bring structure to their lives to something otherworldly. Once Aleksei returns from Nigeria and the confrontation with Jomo he is a changed man. Many a film is about a man assuming the identity of another, but Disco Boy takes away the ruse in a supernatural way as dark and light become intertwined. Your mileage with where the story goes from here may vary.

Although Aleksei and Jomo gradually blend into one, Disco Boy does feel more like the story of the former, which throws the balance of the film off at the risk of making Jomo a plot point in Aleksei’s journey. There is more to Jomo than that, and the story necessitates the shift, but we get not quite enough from Jomo’s perspective to make this a true tale of two halves. That said, the way Abbruzzese’s visual language and the ideas about the id and ‘the other’ that the film revolves around amalgamate, one feels as if Disco Boy is the cinematic equivalent of a 1+1=3 equation. The film has a hypnotic quality to it, added onto by the presence of Rogowski. This isn’t the first time the German actor plays a character undergoing some sort of metamorphosis, although probably the first time outside a Christian Petzold film, and it’s easy to see why the actor’s wiry, rugged masculinity combined with his fragility make him so malleable. His Aleksei is (again) a very soulful performance of both a man and a stand-in for a nationality (like in Petzold’s Transit).

Nationality in general plays a role in the film, no doubt. Making Aleksei Belarusian, certainly in light of geo-political developments in the past year, has an impact on how we regard him. It also says something about Europe and the way it deals with its borders and what it means to be ‘European’. The second nationality in play is French, which Aleksei hopes to attain. But given the devastating aftermath of France’s endeavours abroad, even decades later, is this really desirable? And, once again coming back to borders, will an immigrant like Udoka, who returns in the final third, ever be accepted as ‘French’? Abbruzzese makes good use of the most natural of borders, rivers, to not only transition between the phases in Aleksei’s arc, but to elucidate the flimsy nature of the concept of borders and making people on the other side ‘the other’.

Any film involving the French Foreign Legion (talk about nationalities and borders!) will inevitably be compared to Claire Denis’ classic Beau Travail, and Abbruzzese’s film wears its influence on its sleeve. The setting, the masculinity, the dance (including the symbolic ‘dance’ between the soldiers), the dreamlike nature of the film, the score; all owe a debt to Denis’ masterpiece. But never once does Disco Boy become derivative, precisely because of the supernatural element. Influence is not copying, and there is enough ambition in Disco Boy to diffuse any idea that the films are too alike. Abbruzzese has crafted a unique film that requires a certain mindset to fully enjoy, but paired with a superb central performance and outstanding work behind the camera Disco Boy is a provocative and intelligent debut that will put its director firmly on the radar.

(c) Image copyright: Films Grand Huit