• Reviewed from the 2021 Locarno film festival.

A riot squad in Rome finds itself in the midst of clouds of tear gas. In the immediate aftermath, one of the policemen throws up and the others, exhausted, take refuge in a riot van. When one of the officers takes off his helmet he is revealed to be Black. In the US and UK this might not be much of a revelation, but integration in Italy and in particular in the so-called ‘forze di ordine’ is nowhere near as common. 

Daniel (Germano Gentile) has succeeded in becoming part of an elite squad of policemen that revels in its Roman heritage. His boss and surrogate father figure is nicknamed The Eagle and spouts Gladiator-style maxims. To fit in, Daniel not only has to put up with his racist nickname ‘Hot Choc’ and ‘banter’ of similar quality, but also feels compelled to deny the existence of his own family, presenting himself as an orphan to be taken in by the family of his unit. He is the one good Black guy who’s not like those others, the exception the racists can accept among their ranks. In reality, he has a brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) and mother (Félicité Mbezelé), both of whom live in a building that has been occupied by its tenants in the center of Rome. Things come to a head when Daniel’s unit is tasked with evicting the protesting residents and a showdown looks inevitable.

Maurizio Bousso as Patrick in The Legionnaire

Director Hleb Papou – himself an immigrant settled in Italy – developed his debut feature film from a short made under the auspices of the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico in Rome. Although it is Daniel’s plot thread which takes precedence, the plight of the occupiers and their fight with the city council, their landlord and hostile neighbours is also given substantial screen time and this is led by Patrick, who devotes himself to protecting his multicultural home.

Both Patrick and Daniel are Italian in all respects of the word: they speak in Roman accents, battle for the affection of their mamma and, hearing them bicker about who pays for the Spritz, they sound like every Italian brother pairing since Romulus and Remus. If Daniel has found his identity in the close-knit macho community of his police unit, Patrick has found himself in the messy, often chaotic but undeniably vital world of his besieged palazzo. Daniel’s story most closely resembles something like Donnie Brasco or The Departed and it is depressing how Daniel’s race automatically makes him analogous to an infiltrating outlaw. For him, however, the danger is all too real, and when his colleagues begin to suspect his reliability their fascism begins to rear its head.

Papou and his fellow screenwriters Giuseppe Brigante and Emanuele Mochi have created a rich and complicated picture of the incomplete integration of Italy. They have balanced a social realist melodrama with thriller aspects that might sit less comfortably if not for two magnificent performances by Gentile and Bousso. Gentile in particular conveys the ambivalence of Daniel, who shows up to a police get together wearing a ‘Fuck the Police’ t-shirt. For non-Italians, the film might feel like a throwback to something from the 70s or 80s (see Steve McQueen’s recent Red, White and Blue), but this is a vital and timely work for Italy.