For around half of the entire last century, there was a semi-official policy enacted by the Swiss state to forcibly separate the children of “itinerant” parents from their families. The program, known as “Kinder der Landstrasse” (“Children of the Road”), was ostensibly designed for the protection of such children from the perils of vagrancy and criminality which the state imagined rife among the traveller population. In retrospect, of course, the practise, which was discontinued in the 1970s, has been revealed for what it actually was: an unjustifiably cruel abrogation of the human rights of various minority populations, among them the Yenish, the group to which Franz Rogowski’s Lubo Moser, the focus of Giorgio Diritti’s sprawling, overlong “Lubo,” belongs. Nobody could deny that such a historical injustice merits a moving and epic cinematic investigation. It’s just a shame that while the three-hour-long “Lubo” probably contains that very film, it also contains about three others of lesser value that are given equal, leaden weight.
It is 1939 in the Grisons canton of Switzerland (oddly enough also the setting for another Venice 2023 competition title, “The Theory of Everything”) a pictorially blessed environment for which Benjamin Maier’s stately, scrupulous camera is duly grateful. The Moser family — Lubo, his wife and three cheerfully ragamuffin little kids — are a troupe of travelling performers who earn their keep putting on shows in the local towns. While the children beat ladles on pots as percussion, Lubo capers around in a bear suit, before emerging like a butterfly from a chrysalis, in a floaty peach dress, playing a strange gypsy-music tune on his harmonica. The crowd, comprising laughing villagers and gawping children and tourists in chic alpine-wear, are charmed by his prettified pantomime.
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But on the road later, the troupe’s little two-wagon convoy is halted by some gendarmes, who inform Lubo he has been conscripted in to the Swiss Army to guard their borders against probable German attack. He protests, but is taken off anyway, and has not been long serving as a soldier when word comes that his wife has died as a result of a fracas that ensued when the authorities came to take his three kids away. Desperate to find them, but knowing he will need money and access to do so, Lubo falls in with shady smuggler Bruno Reiter (Joel Basman) who is trafficking stolen jewelry across the border. In the dead of night, Lubo murders Reiter and steals his car (which Lubo has learnt to drive only by watching) along with everything else of value, including Reiter’s identity.
He reinvents himself as a man of wealth and connection, and starts working through Zurich high society to get closer to the bureaucratically buried records of where his children were placed after they were taken. He is thwarted in his main aim of finding them, but much more successful in pursuing a secondary, and far more dubious goal. Counseled by a Yenish elder, in light of the dwindling, persecuted Yenish population, to “Love all the women in her [Lubo’s wife]” by “loving her in all the women,” Lubo becomes a serial seducer. First well-connected gallerist Elsa (Noémi Besedes) falls for his charms, and then banker’s wife Klara (Cecilia Steiner) does too. Klara gets pregnant with Lubo’s baby.
There is no sense in which Diritti, and his co-writer Fredo Valla are trying to suggest that Lubo is a straightforwardly sympathetic, likeable hero – he is, after all, a murderer. But there is a different tenor to Lubo’s uncomfortably vengeance-tinged dalliances with these women, for whom he cares less than nothing — whom, in fact, he despises. They are both, in different ways, politically abhorrent: Elsa in her misguided, racist do-goodery and Klara in her vapid apathy. But their ignorance can hardly justify what amounts to a grossly protracted form of rape, that is also unsettlingly predicated on some of the very same tribalist, eugenicist thinking of which Lubo’s people are victims. A smarter, tighter film would make these points emphatically, at the very least mining from them their inherent drama, but Diritti’s movie plods through these episodes at a methodical, uninflected pace. It implies they are just-another-thing-that-happened-to-Lubo, on his way toward some kind of redemption in the arms of Margherita (Valentine Bellè) a hotel maid with whom he actually does fall in love.
Of course, eventually his past – and not just his but the past of the real Bruno Reiter too – catches up with Lubo, in the form of stiff but not inhumane police captain Motti (Christophe Sermet) who also happened to be the deserter Lubo’s commanding officer in the army. But by the time Motti shows up and the action has moved to the neighboring canton of Ticino, as well making a scenic detour over the border into Italy, “Lubo,” despite Rogowski’s eternally watchable, committed presence, has worn out its welcome. Now in its slightly mawkish soap opera phase, it moves so sluggishly and with such a lack of urgency that even nearing the 170 minute mark, people are still walking slowly into rooms, staring meditatively out of windows and dreamily clicking out silent tunes on a muted accordion. The story of the stolen children was a secret way too long buried to be thus buried once more within a movie that is, simply, way too long.
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