IO CAPITANO – Review by Jennifer Green

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There is cinema that is entertaining, cinema that is educational, cinema that is emotional. And there is cinema that is necessary. Io Capitano falls into the latter category. It’s all those other things as well, but this is a story that takes the collective experiences of many migrants and boils them into one harrowing tale that viewers can’t turn away from, following the odyssey of two teens from Senegal to Italy.

The film had a screening with the Pope and has become an educational tool in Italian schools, according to interviews with director Matteo Garrone. It’s also picked up accolades all year, from best director and best young actor (for star Seydou Sarr) at its premiere in the 2023 Venice Film Festival, to making the shortlist for the International Oscar, to sweeping last week’s Donatello Awards with seven nods, including best film and director.

Garrone has said in interviews that his goal with this film was to put the camera on the other side of the immigration experience, to offer a “reverse shot” and give voice to the traditionally voiceless. He has called himself an “intermediary” in the extent to which he relied on formal and informal consultants (including the extras on set) who had made the trek themselves.

The film opens in Senegal where two best-friend cousins, Seydou (Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall), are secretly working construction jobs after school to save up enough money to make the trek to Europe. Their lives seem happy, but their families make do with very little. Seydou tells his widowed mother that he wants to make something of himself to help her and his many younger siblings, all of whom sleep piled up in their one-room home.

The boys finally set out, though Seydou has doubts from the beginning. Moussa keeps the mood cheery, with dreams of a successful musical career for Seydou in Europe. But things go wrong right away, with all manner of thugs and traffickers exploiting them for more and more money, putting them into increasingly dangerous and life-threatening circumstances.

We watch all this through Seydou’s eyes, glimpsing his realization of how expendable his life becomes on the journey; and he is only one of thousands. Newcomer Sarr does an amazing job conveying all of this, mostly without words. Some scenes are especially hard to watch as the two boys go from threats to actual torture at the hands of a seemingly unending supply of bad men looking to exploit them. There are good people too, such as a surrogate father who takes Seydou under his wing for a period, and Seydou has his belief in the spirits of his ancestors to comfort him when he drifts into unconsciousness.

Garrone does an impressive job building suspense across the journey, using titles to guide us and an episodic narrative subtly cut together with dissolves and set to varying flavors of musical beats. Despite horrors, there are enough moments of levity and humanity to keep the viewer hopeful until the end. Garrone leaves the ending somewhat open – we don’t know what comes next for Seydou, Moussa or the hundreds packed onto their boat. Will they meet the criteria to stay in Europe?

This is where Garrone’s choice to center the story on two 16-year-old boys who leave apparently happy homes to try to seek out fame and a better living wage might ultimately undermine the message he’s trying to convey. Theirs isn’t the story of political refugees or people fleeing desperate circumstances. Seydou’s family is poor, but there is no suggestion of misery.

In fact, what Garrone shows of their lives in Dakar actually feels quite rich in community (an evening dance ritual is joyous), caring in family relationships (cramped quarters, but pleasant and loving) and enjoyable enough in terms of school (a snippet suggests a thoughtful and engaging teacher) and after-school activities (soccer matches, helping parents, hanging out with friends).

Is this an outsider’s perspective? If we’re talking about letting the ‘voiceless’ speak for themselves, would an African writing and directing team have made different choices in filming this story? Would their work have been as internationally well-received?

A harsher picture of Seydou and Moussa’s home life would have made their horrific odyssey more a last measure than what it appears to be – an ultimately uninformed choice by impulsive teen boys. Still, what we are meant to take away is how harrowing the journey is before they even hit the Mediterranean, the site of so much political wrangling. If they endure this, no matter where they came from, they deserve asylum, the film seems to be telling us.

From a human rather than a policy standpoint, it’s hard to disagree. Seydou and Moussa are endearing, decent characters depicted as kind, brave, clever and resilient. They are easy for audiences to like, which is probably part of the goal as well. Of course they deserve to make a living wage, if not make all their dreams come true – just as every human does. In this, Garrone’s ‘reverse shot’ is entirely successful at humanizing its subjects and possibly, just possibly, politicizing its viewers.

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.