Franz Rogowski further cemented his status as one of Europe’s most chameleonic and adventurous screen actors with his highwire turn this year as a narcissistic film director in Ira Sachs’ Passages, the agent of chaos at the center of a love triangle that spins out of control. The German actor again brings searing magnetism to Lubo, playing a member of midcentury Switzerland’s nomadic Yenish community, whose family and peaceful existence are torn from him by national authorities in what amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign. Here, however, it’s the sprawling novelistic material that slips out of director Giorgio Diritti’s control.
Inspired by Mario Cavatore’s 2004 novel Il Seminatore but nudged far too often into melodrama in Diritti and Fredo Valla’s baggy screenplay, the film’s historical jumping-off point is eminently worthy of large-canvas treatment. But after a compelling first hour, the director can’t seem to get to the dramatic and emotional crux of the epic story, which runs a bloated three hours. When he finally does get there it’s in the dreaded Big Speech, which even an actor of Rogowski’s generous gifts can’t make into anything but a teachable moment.
The Bottom Line A strong lead can’t disguise lumpy storytelling.
The ignominious chapter in European history concerns the “Kinder der Landstrasse” (“Children of the Road”) program, a Swiss government-sanctioned human rights violation under which Yenish children were forcibly removed from their parents — at that time reviled as “gypsies” — ostensibly over concern for their moral safety. Becoming wards of the state in a foundation called Pro Juventate, the children were separated, re-educated and effectively stripped of their cultural identity before being put up for adoption. The practice continued from 1926 to 1973.
Rogowski plays the title character, an entertainer going from town to town with his wife, three small children and other extended family members in horse-drawn carts, staging folkloric street performances to earn a modest living. The opening has Lubo playing a wild bear that’s eventually subdued, at which point he emerges from the animal costume in semi-drag, playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica and charming the spectators. That act of transformation and beguilement has echoes in the character’s larger journey.
At the start of the war in 1939, Lubo is conscripted to serve in the Swiss Confederation army, sent to guard the neutral border from possible German invasion. Not long after, he receives devastating news — his three children have been taken into custody by the gendarmerie and his wife killed trying to stop them. While his nephew urges Lubo to desert his post and flee to France with him, the widowed father refuses to leave Switzerland until he has found and reclaimed his children.
In the first of several plot turns that make Lubo a far less straightforward hero than his wronged-man introduction would suggest, the script reveals his ruthless sense of purpose. An opportunity presents itself via shady Viennese wheeler-dealer Bruno Reiter (Joel Basman), who enlists Lubo’s help to smuggle jewelry and other valuables across the border. That Reiter himself is later revealed to be an unscrupulous opportunist doesn’t soften the violence of Lubo’s actions.
He assumes Reiter’s identity — also appropriating the Austrian’s wads of cash, assets and his fancy car — and reinvents himself as a wealthy merchant, searching for his children by feigning a philanthropic interest in the Pro Juventate institutions.
Spurred by the words of a Yenish elder predicting that their community will be pushed to extinction, Lubo embarks on a revenge-by-seduction campaign with the moneyed women of Zurich, exploiting the connections of gallerist and Pro Juventate benefactor Elsa (Noémi Besedes) and banker’s wife Klara (Cecilia Steiner).
Each woman in her way represents the authorities that destroyed Lubo’s family. But this protracted midsection turns him into a serial cad, an aspect Rogowski has no trouble putting across even if it doesn’t serve the story particularly well. In fact, the longer he spends dallying with society women and fruitlessly combing the Pro Juventate files, the further the plot driver of his lost children recedes.
This part of the film becomes like the soggy central episode of a limited series for TV, a format that might have been better suited to the material. In its present shape, the screenplay skimps on connective thread in places where more detail would have proved beneficial and elsewhere gets bogged down in ambling detours.
Unlike Elsa and Klara, for whom he has nothing but scorn, Lubo’s feelings for Margherita (Valentina Bellè), the Italian hotel maid he meets in 1951, are genuine. But his hope of easing the sorrow of his past by starting a family with her in a home he has bought on Italy’s Lake Maggiore is crushed when that past catches up with him in the form of his wartime squad leader Motti (Christophe Sermet), now a detective.
It’s at this point that Diritti lets the whole thing devolve into drawn-out soap as a prison term makes way for more heartbreak when Lubo is out on furlough in 1959 and once again finds his right to be a father denied. Lurid potboiler revelations about the man who has taken his place only add to the story’s derailment. By the time the unexpectedly compassionate Motti gets Lubo’s full story and is sufficiently haunted by it to advocate for clemency, the director’s grasp has slackened beyond repair.
Through all this, Rogowski keeps you watching, giving the character sufficient shading to make the tragedy of a broken man and a marginalized people violated by history affecting despite the film’s many missteps. With its melancholy, string-heavy score and accordion elements that take Lubo back to his roots, its handsome period trappings and scenic locations in Switzerland and Italy, Lubo is a classy enough production. But the movie too seldom rises to the level of its charismatic lead.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Indiana Production, AranciaFilm, Rai Cinema, HugoFilm Features, Proxima Milano
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Christophe Sermet, Valentina Bellè, Noémi Besedes, Cecilia Steiner, Joel Basman, Philippe Graber, Massimiliano Caprara
Director: Giorgio Diritti
Screenwriters: Giorgio Diritti, Fredo Valla, loosely inspired by the novel Il Seminatore, by Mario Cavatore
Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib, Marco Cohen, Daniel Campos Pavoncelli, Giorgio Diritti, Francesca Scorzoni, Christof Neracher, Claudio Falconi, Alberto Fusco, Andrea Masera
Executive producers: Simone Bachini, Alessandro Mascheroni
Director of photography: Benjamin Maier
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili
Costume designer: Ursula Patzak
Music: Marco Biscarini
Editors: Paolo Cottignola, Giorgio Diritti
Casting: Chiara Moretti, Corinna Glaus, Stefania Rodà
Sales: True Colours
3 hours 1 minute