Locarno 2021 review: The Legionnaire (Hleb Papou)

Premiering in the competitive “Filmmakers of the Present” strand in the Locarno Film Festival, Hleb Papou’s topical debut feature The Legionnaire (Il Legionario) revolves around a conflicted protagonist torn between two worlds. Daniel, the police officer at the center of this compelling and compact action drama, is a member of the special anti-riot unit tasked with evicting residents of a large building in Rome which has been occupied by immigrants from various countries for more than fifteen years. Such an assignment would probably create a challenging ethical dilemma for any young officer, but the stakes are doubled in Daniel’s case since his mother and brother are among the hundreds of occupants of the building.

The Legionnaire marches towards a potentially explosive ending by efficiently going through the relatively predictable series of events leading up to the eviction. Occupants of the building have community forums, meet with a representative from the municipality to no avail, and deal with a lengthy power cut that leaves the entire building in the dark for a while. Daniel is understandably hesitant, feeling a sense of belonging to his police unit (described as a “family” on several occasions), but also unwilling to carry out a mission that will damage his community. He tries to skip out on the mission, but is later convinced by his superior to join the unit. He has bouts of anger; his relationship with his pregnant wife is strained; he starts to question his own position as a soldier and as the son of a family of immigrants. While this is a complex setup without any easy answers, The Legionnaire lacks the urgency and energy that could propel the film to greater emotional impact. Despite the competent storytelling on display one is left wondering what a more distinctive directorial voice (the synopsis reads like a perfect fit for the Dardenne brothers, for example) could bring to the same material.

Some of the most affecting moments in The Legionnaire put the spotlight on Daniel’s mother, who considers the occupied building to be her home and refuses to move in with Daniel despite his repeated suggestions. Since this is essentially a story about two brothers on opposite sides of a political and possibly violent struggle, it is not surprising to see the mother given the essential role of keeping the competing impulses within the family in check. Beyond the culturally and politically specific setting, the story’s universal appeal lies in the complexity of Daniel’s bond with his mother, a key theme in the film being the difficulty of escaping from one’s roots and family ties. Daniel’s mother is not an imposing figure at all, but she has her own gentle way of directing Daniel’s decisions and actions. The balancing act of maintaining one’s ties to the homeland while building a new life in a different country that positions you as an outsider troubles Daniel greatly, yet it all comes naturally to his strong and graceful mother.

The Legionnaire is based on Hleb Papou’s short film of the same name from 2017. This extended version does a good job of packing several timely themes (housing crises in urban centers, rising anti-immigration sentiment and far-right politics in Europe, the inability or unwillingness of state institutions to offer meaningful long-term solutions) into an 80-minute package. Papou’s screenplay is lean yet ambitious, there isn’t any wasted screen time. Unfortunately, however, some elements in The Legionnaire remain underdeveloped and the heart-pounding climax the film keeps teasing from the very beginning never really arrives. There are many notable supporting characters in the immigrant community, but they never get their moments to shine. Daniel’s brother is dealing with a painful separation and faces the risk of losing his son, but such subplots are not fully explored. In its current form, The Legionnaire functions as a promising build-up to something greater, a more immediate and powerful ending that eludes the filmmakers and the characters alike.