Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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HLEB PAPOU: THE LEGIONNAIRE/IL LEGIONARIO (2021) - OPEN ROADS: NEW ITALIAN CINEMA AT LINCOLN CENTER (JUNE 9-15, 2022)

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GERMANO GENTILE IN LEGIONARIO

Uneven but significant film vividly depicts the new multicultural Italy

The young Italian filmmaker Hleb Papou, who was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1991, has lived in Italy since he was eleven, growing up in the city of Lecco, on Lake Como, and has been a naturalized citizen since 2017. Papou likes American action pictures: his first movie memory, he said in a brief video interview, was Peckinpah's Iron Cross. He might "blend in," because he's white. But with 8.4% of its population now foreign, Italy's previous monoculture faces a rude adjustment, as do other European nations at different stages. There has been an unprecedented influx to Italy from Africa: over a million. There are over 800,000 children born of immigrants, and Italy, as Papou has said in another interview, "is no longer the place that many people think it is, with its 'pizza, spaghetti, mandolino and bella vita.'"

Among current directors Papou admires Jacques Audiard, so he may have been thinking of The Beat My Heart Skipped, as well as Pickinpah, in making his first movie storyline (first developed in an eponymous prizewinning short film made while studying at Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia), which is one that climaxes in a violent eviction from a block of flats in the San Sebastiano section of Rome occupied for fifteen years by 150 foreign-born and poor families. It was a bold youthful project blending documentary elements with action movies like Gareth Evans' 2012 The Raid: Redemption (ND/NF 2012). This kind of thing - even to the ghetto actioner stuff like Richet's 1997 Ma 6-T va crack-er - has been done much more by the French. To see it in Italian is partly heartening, partly horrifying. We are a long way from the gentle humanistic postwar neorealismo of De Sica and Rossellini.

Papou's mix of documentary and fiction is exciting, but uneven. Il legionario, his new feature, which won him the award for best emerging director at Locarno, is energetic and intense, but light on character development and at times indifferent to the viewer. Like too many first films, it forgets to breathe. It also gets clogged sometimes, its female characters are underdeveloped, and its finale is a bit flat. But it is looking at a whole new Italy - a multicultural world such as French films have taken account of for quite a while. Its central issue is confused identity and mixed loyalties. Its main characters are two star-crossed Afro-Italian brothers who have grown contrasting identities. The lean, angular Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) is one of the fieriest and most outspoken leaders of the block occupation. His bigger, bulkier, and darker brother Daniel (Germano Gentile) is a celerino, the lone Afro-Italian member of the Reparto Mobile, the hard-training Rome riot police unit whose job sometimes includes expelling occupiers of squats the municipality has declared illegal, which then happens to the block where he grew up, still occupied by Patrick and his mother.

Hleb Papou and his crew had an exciting and challenging time making a movie this multicultural and turbulent. Amazingly, the city police lent him men for a time. We see provocative one-on-one practice combats of fully geared-up, armored, helmeted and masked celerini that incidentally show the free use of racist and homophobic epithets to provoke themselves to perform combatively. We see Patrick and the block committee engage in hot arguments. The latter are less than stimulating after a while. The police combat only makes sense, perhaps, when we see Daniel at home in his new flat (away from the squat) with his pregnant white wife, playing video get-the-cops games. It's a good job, with his burly, agile body he's an ace at it; but the casual racism, and the involvement with ultra-fascists of his commander Aquila (Marco Falaguasta) make Daniel do some double-think - and deny his family: he never mentions Patrick or their mom and where they live at work.

How Papou made this film is almost more interesting than the film itself. The squat is a real one, the former Inpdap building in Via Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, and other than the main characters who are professional actors the others are actual occupants of this squat. It's not clear to me who plays Patrick and Daniel's mom, but she weeps real tears and her shaky Italian is real.(Sometimes the non-pro actors may not be very good, and in future Papou might want to be more selective in choosing and developing his main characters.) At one point the electricity has been cut off in the whole building, and a Polish priest arrives with his white hair in a back-knot who asks to be taken to the controls and quickly turns the power back on. This is something that really happened, and Papou just shot it.

Papou is good at bringing all these elements together. Perhaps no thanks to his co-writers Giuseppe Brigante and Emanuele Mochi, the film doesn't quite make Daniel's conflicts and ambivalence as real or as conflicted, or as resolved, as they should be. There is a lot of energy in this movie - it's almost imploding at times. The director has cited, besides Peckinpah and Audiard, Villeneuve and films such as Ladj Ly's prize-winning Les miserables, The Danish Shorta or José Padilha's Tropa de Elite. He wasn't yet thirty when he made Il legionario. We look forward to his further honing his skills and engagé blend of genre and doc elements in future.

The Legionnaire/Il legionario, 82 mins., debuted at Locarno in the Cineasti del Presente section Aug. 6, 2021, awarded as Best Emerging Director, Annecy Cinema Italien – Art Cinema Award – Cicae Winner, also showing at Hamburg and Rome. It grew out of the same-titled short debuted at Critics' Week at Cannes 2017 and Future Frames at Karlovy Vary the following year. Screened for this review as part of the FLC-Cinecittà 2012 Jun. 9-15, 2022 series Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

Saturday, June 11 at 12:00pm (Q&A with Hleb Papou)
Wednesday, June 15 at 4:00pm

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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