Io Capitano – Review

Io Capitano Italian director Matteo Garrone is perhaps best known as the man behind 2008’s Gomorra, taking viewers deep into the brutal undertakings of the Neapolitan mafia in their stronghold of Scampia Vele.  His latest film, Io Capitano, strikes at the heart of an issue that continues to sew division within contemporary Italian politics – even if Italy is nothing more than a mere shadow on the horizon in this film.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) are young Senegalese cousins living in Dakar. They have been lying to their mothers, taking odd jobs to raise enough cash to make a bid for Europe. Despite being warned that the journey they are about to attempt is littered with the bodies of those who went before them, they are undeterred. But is their quest to achieve some sort of Italian paradise destined for nothing more than unrelenting horror?

Garrone – along with his cinematographer Paolo Carnera – goes to great lengths to emphasise the excruciating nature of the journey to a better life. Seydou and Moussa must cross the Sahara Desert, make it to Libya and, from there, cross the ocean to Italy. The sand, the dust and the heat feel suffocating. Sweeping shots of golden dunes reveal the migrants to be mere dots on the landscape. The boat across the Mediterranean is just a small white wedge in amongst swathes of azure blue. Each of these stages is fraught with danger. They are warned that they will be robbed, abandoned and worse – warnings that prove to be devastatingly accurate. As viewers, you cannot help but fear for these keen, if naïve, sixteen year olds who are surely nothing more than easy marks for unscrupulous people traffickers.

Both Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall are utterly compelling in their lead roles. Both young men draw you in with their initial enthusiasm; their hopes and dreams. Their chemistry is easy and natural and you can’t help but will them on in their quest. But as their journey progresses, you feel every bit as weary and desperate as they do. Although they are victims of a grossly exploitative human trafficking system, their desire to survive (for themselves and each other) is never broken. Sarr, in particular, has the most incredible eyes that really lay bare what his character is feeling. So often, his features melt into a childlike fear that negates all of his attempts to appear strong. His tragedy feels epic in scale; like something that would grace an old Italian masterpiece. Both performances breathe life into a migration crisis that often seems two dimensional in newspaper pages or television reports.

And it is this that the film really succeeds in – humanising a crisis that feels remote. It brings it right to you, never allowing you to look away from scenes of torture or violence; never allowing you to escape the despair and dirt. Garrone makes it clear that no one makes this kind of journey unless they are absolutely desperate.

It also cherishes the small acts of kindness that relieve the seemingly endless inhumanity. A close of up a motherly hand caressing Seydou’s face; a fatherly instinct of protection; help with directions, medical care, water or emotional support. All of the other migrants Seydou and Io Capitano Moussa encounter shower them with nothing but tenderness. Even when tensions flare, due to crowded conditions and sickness, these are simmered quickly with an understanding that they are all pulling in the same direction. There are a couple of really beautiful, surreal, dream-like sequences, which Garrone uses sparingly but effectively to highlight the care and affection that Seydou dreams of (and once had).

But Garrone hasn’t made this film simply to tug at some heartstrings and win some awards. He – along with writers Massimo Ceccherini and Massimo Gaudiosi – highlights a very real, very universal issue that continues to impact the lives of millions. The Maltese and Italian coastguards who do not answer distress cries from Seydou’s boat; the traffickers piling up dead bodies who cannot be fleeced for any more money; the desert drivers who do not care that someone has fallen off their truck. All of this is laid bare for us, as viewers, not just to feel sympathy for our two leads but to understand the brutal depths of the migrant crisis.

Io Capitano is surely compulsory viewing.

Io Capitano is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival and is due to hit UK cinemas in April.


Mary Munoz
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