LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! A sense of ever-increasing dread pervades every scene in Hleb Papou’s staggering debut, The Legionnaire (Il Legionario). Pulling from his experience as an immigrant, he plunges the audience into the tumultuous tenements of Rome and a family that is slowly being torn apart by the metastasizing racial conflicts within.
Germano Gentile plays Daniel, an officer within the city’s riot unit, notable for its reputation as one of the toughest in the country. Yet, by most accounts, Daniel has a great life, is respected by his fellow officers, is loved by his beautiful wife, and is anxious for his baby daughter’s birth. But the seams of his finely stitched life begin to show when Daniel is forced to return to his childhood home. His unit is ordered to clear the building where his immigrant family lives as squatters. To make matters even more complex, Daniel’s mother and idealistic younger brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) still live within its walls.
Daniel is of African heritage, and while he receives the occasional jocular banter from his fellow white officers, the casual racial references begin to take root in his mind. His squad leader, Aquila (Marco Falaguasta), subtly refers to his proud bloodline, and we witness him meeting with right-wing extremists who view the complex’s majority-immigrant occupants as a societal plague. The casual asides uttered by officers within his unit, the “locker room talk” fixated on skin color, and the mention of immigrants as less-than-human seem to greet Daniel on the job and in casual settings with his “family” of policemen.
“[Daniel’s] unit is ordered to clear the building where his immigrant family lives as squatters.”
As many countries are currently confronting their ugly pasts, the themes feel urgently appropriate and universal. Papou helms The Legionnaire with a lens tightened on his leads and crafts a story, along with co-writers Giuseppe Brigante and Emanuele Mochi, that at once feels age-old yet of the moment. As it strides toward its inevitable, clashing climax, the filmmaker relies less on speechifying and pares dialogue down to a minimum instead of focusing on the inner conflict raging within Daniel.
He has assembled a crack team behind the lens as well, from the intimate cinematography by Luca Nervegna to the driving score from Andrea Boccadaro. Gentile expertly navigates the complex emotions at play as he is forced to confront his internal turbulence but is forced to witness how it courses through the country’s veins.
Even though Papou coaxed The Legionnaire from the 2017 short of the same name, it races by at a brisk 81 minutes and could actually benefit from spending even more time with these characters in this predicament. Still, he has created a passionate, resonant production that aches with authenticity and promises a solid cinematic future for all involved.
The Legionnaire screened at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival.
"…the themes feel urgently appropriate and universal."