Two disparate geographical locations—a jungle near the Niger Delta and a roadway somewhere in Belarus—make up the initial setting of Disco Boy (2023), Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s feature debut, which I caught at the Berlinale. In the first locale, nocturnal creatures croak as the camera creeps into a windowless structure where figures doze atop each other in the dark. Outside, a woman appears amidst flora, turning to reveal two distinctly colored eyes—one brown, the other a kind of mustard yellow—a heterochromic pair she shares with the man on whose face she applies red and white paint in the ensuing shot. Then, an abrupt cut to the second domain—the Eastern European roadway—also at night. A lone bus approaches, its headlights another ocular set. Inside the vehicle the next morning, a raucous group of men, donning team jerseys and paraphernalia, chant and sing, their faces also painted pasty white and crimson. As the bus approaches an entry checkpoint, it slows for inspection.
Boundaries, divisions, dualisms as well as themes of exile, identity, and empires’ orphaned territories—all pervade Disco Boy’s lean ninety minutes as it nimbly navigates the aftermath of far-reaching colonial enterprises. The narratives follow Belarusian Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) and Nigerian siblings Jomo (Morr Ndiaye) and Udoka (Laetitia Ky), all of whom are experiencing an acute crisis of nationhood and self. Jomo leads a guerrilla militia along the Niger Delta, working to counter the corrupt Nigerian government, which has partnered with foreign investors whose extractive economic ventures are ravaging the landscape. While Jomo insists on standing his ground, Udoka (who possesses that particularly strong optic bond with her brother), seeks to flee the increasingly decimated terrain of the riverbank village. Meanwhile, Aleksei, along with his boisterous bus companions from Belarus, holds a three-day visa to Poland. However, he and coconspirator Mikhail (Michal Balicki) have other intentions: they abandon the bus, hitchhike across Europe, and attempt a dangerous, aqueous entry into France.
A new start, a new set of papers, an end to colonialism masking as capitalist enterprise—Udoka, Aleksei and Jomo all seek conditions outside of those into which they were born. But escaping the remnants of vast, violent imperial programs isn’t so simple. Udoka flees Nigeria only to land in France working for a Russian club owner. Even Jomo, as uncompromising as he is, seems haunted by the shadow of empire. “We will not follow the same path as our fathers; we will not be slaves,” says Jomo, staring into a camcorder as he and other militia members record a warning message to potential invaders. Yet at one point, more privately, he says to a compatriot, “Do you ever wonder what you’d have become if you were born on the other side, among the whites?”
Then there’s Aleksei who never really unburdens himself of the waterways at the heart of colonial trade. After the loss of nearly all his belongings and Mikhail’s death during their border crossing, Aleksei enlists in the French Foreign Legion, passes the excruciating entrance exam, and paves his way to obtaining a French residence permit and, in five years time, a French passport. But almost as soon as Aleksei swaps out his Belarusian identity for a newly earned Francophone one, he finds himself in the matrix of the Niger Delta. After Jomo and his comrades kidnap two Frenchmen, Aleksei’s unit deploys to rescue them. In an exquisitely shot sequence seen through the legionnaire’s night vision (thanks to Hélène Louvart, who won a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution in cinematography), we find ourselves, along with Aleksei and Jomo, caught in the muck of the Niger Delta matrix during a pivotal conflict.
“We thought it’d be better,” claims Aleksei, speaking to the Russian mobster and club owner in France where he spots Udoka, with whom he becomes infatuated. “We were wrong.”
The bloated promises of national belonging eat at Disco Boy’s characters and, at its strongest, the film perhaps advocates that all nations ultimately let you down. Recently acquired citizenship promises new beginnings, new narratives, new consciousness. But accompanying that “clean slate” is a palliative amnesia that fails to address the larger systems of colonialism and empire still lingering. In a sense, Disco Boy instead argues for the power of the political orphan—Aleksei even possesses a tattoo signifying his identity as an actual orphan—the figure who casts off the colonial parents, and who, instead of attempting reentry into another, similarly shitty imperial setting, authors their own story. In the end, Aleksei lives in the in-between, finding resistance in refusing the patriotism embedded in the Legionnaire’s code. Abbruzzese underscores this in a transformative dreamlike scenario in which Aleksei acquires the same heterochromic irises Jomo and Udoka possess.
No doubt, Abbruzzese’s movie certainly pays homage to Claire Denis’s epic Beau Travail (1999). He even ends Disco Boy with an exuberant club sequence reminiscent of Denis’s film. Disco Boy pivots away from the pre-millennial jouissance of Denis Lavant’s Galoup finally letting loose in an empty discotheque to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” in Denis’s film. Instead, Abbruzzese delivers something suitably strange for our moment, something registering this energetic orphaned state.