‘Io Capitano’ Review: Oscar Nominated Depiction of the Hellscape of Migration

Italian director Matteo Garrone mixes magic realism and brutal reality, but what's most impressive is the profoundly moving work of actors Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall.

Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall in Io Capitano. GRETA DE LAZZARIS/Cohen Media Group

No one thinks it’s a good idea for teenage cousins Seydou and Moussa to embark on the treacherous journey from their native Senegal to Europe. Seydou’s mother is so adamantly against it that moments after he proposes the idea, he tries to play it off like he was only joking. When they share their scheme with a local merchant, he angrily tosses them out of his stall. Their long dead ancestors, contacted through a local shaman, are the only ones who don’t think it’s a mistake; presumably, they haven’t seen the news recently.     

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IO CAPITANO ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Matteo Garrone
Written by: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawagodo
Running time: 121 mins.

But what does Matteo Garrone—acclaimed director of the bloody 2008 Neapolitan gangster epic Gomorrah and the principal mind behind Io Capitano, a nominee for the International Feature Film Oscar—make of their ambitions? Based on the atrocities he displays—graphically yet with a decided cinematic flair—it’s possible to imagine he shares similar anti-immigration views with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and a majority of Italians. At least at first.  

With its stunning John Ford-like vistas of a corpse laden Sahara and a vast Mediterranean Sea empty of aid vessels to help an immigrant ship overburdened with desperate and sick North Africans, Garrone has—on the surface—made a lush and monumentally disturbing feature-length commercial for staying home.   

After all, unlike many asylum seekers, Seydou, played with unbroken and heartbreaking fortitude by newcomer Seydou Sarr (awarded the Best New Young Actor award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Garrone took home Best Director), isn’t forced to leave by threat of death or starvation. He and Moussa (fellow newcomer Moustapha Fall) live a vibrant life, set off by Garrone’s emphasis on the bright pinks, greens, and reds of daily life in Dakar. Yes, they’d like to send back money to help their family, but their primary ambition in making the crossing is to make music and eventually, as they put it, “have white people ask for your autograph.” 

The first half of the film buzzes with the cousin’s joy and excitement as they prepare for what in their minds will be an adventure. But as anyone who has seen Gomorrah is all too aware, no one can pulverize the hopes and dreams of naive young men into fine dust with greater flair and efficiency than Garrone.

Seydou Sarr in Io Capitano. GRETA DE LAZZARIS/Cohen Media Group

Here that process begins when they are told to keister their money before heading out into the desert. While Moussa takes the advice and Seydou demurs, the idea that any choice they make at this point could help their situation is treated as almost an absurd joke. From then on, their lives are turned into a Bosch-like hellscape. Seydou is tortured and sold into slavery and Moussa imprisoned by Syrian thugs. Throughout all this it is next to impossible to discern between officialdom and thuggery, or even between those who intend to help the pair and those who seek to exploit, harm, or kill them.

Garrone attempts to lighten the impossible weight of all of this with moments of magical realism. When a fellow refugee whom the remarkably empathetic Seydou tries to help dies in the desert, he continues as she floats behind him like a kite. With the help of a birdlike shaman, Seydou dreams that he flies back to his mother in Senegal, and is able to see her smile as she sleeps. But unlike similar moments in Gregory Nava’s 1983 immigration masterpiece El Norte, here these flights feel tacked on, and less grounded in the thematic or narrative intention of the film.

The film’s saving grace is the community that Seydou discovers along his horrific passage, including a builder who takes Seydou under his wing and saves him from the edge of death and who is played by the remarkable Burkinabé actor Issaka Sawagodo. Seydou also discovers tent cities of fellow Senegalese refugees when he reaches Tripoli; through them, he distraughtly tries to reconnect with Moussa. The connection shared by the cousins, and the easy yet profound ways the two actors express it, is palpable and moving.

As the film enters its final third, a harrowing sequence in which Seydou is forced to captain a beyond-capacity refugee ship despite not knowing how to swim and never having stepped foot on a boat, you begin to wonder if Garrone’s attitude towards immigration should even be a concern. 

Last year, nearly 156 thousand migrants crossed the ocean to Italy, among them more than 17,000 unaccompanied minors like Seydou and Moussa. While many recognize this as a worldwide crisis, few if any of those individuals got any help from the international community. Perhaps it matters less what we have to say about this humanitarian disaster than it does that we are having the conversation at all.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Io Capitano’ Review: Oscar Nominated Depiction of the Hellscape of Migration