Disco Boy: a dark vision of mercenary madness in the jungles of Nigeria

Featuring an intensely haunting Franz Rogowski as a Belarusian man who joins the French Foreign Legion in order to obtain French – and thus European – citizenship, this atmospheric drama explores postcolonial aggression, petrochemical greed, and the hidden depths that can lurk within mercenaries.

4 March 2023

By Carmen Gray

Franz Rogowski (third from left) as Aleksei in Disco Boy (2023) © Films Grand Huit
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the Berlin International Film Festival

As mercenaries serve for profit rather than ideals, they’re often considered the very embodiment of cynical unscrupulousness. But when a soldier of fortune stands to gain not just money but his freedom and a whole new identity, more existential complexities come into play, as Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese explores in his bold, visceral, phantasmagorical feature debut Disco Boy. A very strong contender in the Main Competition of the Berlin International Film Festival, heralding a new talent with a distinctive signature, it brings a hellish, Faustian shimmer to its core themes of undocumented migration and exploited desperation.

Franz Rogowski is haunted, intense and typically brilliant as Aleksei, a Belarusian national from the small town of Liozna. Along with his friend Mikael (Michal Balicki), he makes a break for the greater opportunities of the European Union after obtaining a three-day visa for Poland under the guise of sports fandom. Their goal is France, and a new life, by any means available. They dream of drinking Bordeaux together, all pleasures at their fingertips. Their journey, dodging border patrol, is treacherous, and goes drastically off plan, but they see extreme risk as the only option if they want to open doors in a world of unequal opportunity.

Once in Paris, Aleksei signs up to join the French Foreign Legion – a corps of army recruits, membership of which grants the right to a residence permit, and, five years later, a French passport, to foreigners willing to follow orders and shed blood in military campaigns on behalf of the French state. But when he is sent to the Niger Delta amid a troop of soldiers, the harrowing impact of his opportunism becomes ever clearer. His path crosses with that of Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), a militant in a guerrilla movement aimed at emancipating the Delta from colonial exploitation, as its resources are plundered with the complicity of corrupt government authorities, and locals struggle to live off the land.

This is a rain-streaked film of rich, burnished colours, psychedelic night-vision sequences and atmospheric power that takes the unfamiliarity and fight-or-flight danger of strange territory as a cue for heightened, sensorial surrealism. It seems, in the vein of Apocalypse Now (1979), that the minds of soldiers can do little else than become unhinged on their jungle mission. Villages blaze and oil refinery chimneys blare in a vision of multinational greed and environmental decimation.

One inspired satirical scene has a news crew from the US arm of Vice Media show up on the river, its young anchor in a trendy neck-scarf, high on exhilaration at the prospect of an edgy photo opportunity with state enemies as she tries to organise the men for a soundbite. The militants laugh with each other about playing up to the cameras as they shoot their assault weapons skyward. It’s a damning vision of an entrenched colonialism that routinely uses alien bodies for its own ends, even when ostensibly sympathetic to their situation.

In the eyes of the French Foreign Legion, initially formed to assist with France’s colonial project in Africa, Aleksei is another foreign body deemed expendable. He is known as Alex, the Legion having erased his Slavic name and set about chipping away at his humanity, brutally training him to not stop to think, in order to survive. But Aleksei’s impulse to bury a violently dispatched body in a compulsive gesture to confer dignity upon the dead man is one of several aching moments of conflicted humanity that show what is at stake in winning the right to leave the realm of illegal ghosts. Membership in the family of the Legion is strictly conditional, and Aleksei increasingly questions the price.

Being a croupier, or a dancer in a nightclub, are mere fantasies of fighters who imagine being free of their lot, and “on the other side”. Many never experience it. French producer Vitalic’s pulsing electronic score infuses Disco Boy with the mood of hedonistic, communal and trance-like release that can be found on the nightclub floor for those afforded a life of leisure pursuits and authentic self-expression. One chaotic, hallucinatory and aggression-marred evening out on leave in Paris with a macho fellow recruit, Aleksei becomes obsessed with Manuela, a migrant dancer. She seems, to his anguished, guilt-ridden mind, to signal another chance at life – and a key to once again feeling like the dreamer he used to be.

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