The Legionnaire (Film Movement+, NR)

Daniel (Germano Gentile), a second-generation Italian, is a cop and the only person of African descent on Rome’s riot squad. It can’t have been easy to rise to that level and he still has to put up with a lot of casual racism and “jokes” that aren’t funny. But it’s a good gig, paying for a nice apartment where he lives with his family, including his wife and child, with another on the way. Some of his family, however, including his mother (Félicité Mbezelé) and brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso), live in a squat in an abandoned building.

Patrick is an organizer among the tenants, a multicultural crew who have carved out a homey existence for themselves. They keep the building in good order, conduct regular unit inspections, and even manage (with the help of a multi-talented priest) to restore the electricity after the authorities shut it off. Many make it clear that this is their home and they don’t want to leave it, nor do they want their community broken up. . But there’s a big problem on the horizon: the residents of the building have been targeted for eviction, and Daniel’s squad will be the ones to carry it out.

The Legionnaire is Hleb Papou’s debut feature (it’s partly based on his 2017 short of the same name), and while it’s not a great film, it’s certainly an interesting one that’s worth watching. That goes double if you like location shooting (in a very non-touristy part of the Eternal City) or have an interest in social issues. The main problem is that the screenplay (by Giuseppe Brigante, Emanuele Mochi, and Papou) is short on psychological exploration of the characters and manages to be at times overly obvious and at other times confusing, with the editing sometimes seeming accidental rather than inevitable. However, the film’s overall vibe is strong, and minute by minute it will definitely hold your attention.

The Legionnaire is not a straight social realist or crime drama but more of a cinematic prose poem composed of realistic segments interspersed with more impressionistic sequences. The latter are the best part of this film, and Papou might have done well to go further in that direction. That’s always a risk, of course, especially with subject matter that might lead viewers to expect a straightforward genre approach, but Papou shows he’s got the chops to do it. He’s  aided in that effort by an expressive soundtrack by Andrea Boccadoro and effective cinematography by Luca Nervegna.

The story and characters in The Legionnaire are fictional, but the building targeted for eviction is the real thing, and many of the minor roles are played by nonprofessionals, either people who live in the building or real-life policemen. And just because a film is not a documentary doesn’t mean it’s not real. In fact, Papou accomplishes something fiction can often do better than fact: broadening your understanding by taking you out of your own world and placing you inside a different one, in the process delivering an experience you’re unlikely to ever have in real life.

It’s easy to say that everyone should obey the law and respect official orders, but many people live in situations that contradict such easy truisms. Rome has had a severe housing shortage for years, and today about 10,000 people live illegally (i.e., squat) in abandoned buildings, which are often governed by the tenants as is portrayed in this film. If you consider the context—there’s not nearly enough legal housing to go around, and there are abandoned buildings that can be repurposed into reasonable dwelling units—it’s possible your opinion about who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong may change. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Legionnaire is distributed on SVOD by Film Movement+.

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