Matteo Garrone’s talent for weaving stories out of the fabric of real events––especially those involving desperate or violent people––gets another airing in Io Capitano, an engrossing, visceral portrait of one young man’s brutal journey from Senegal to the coast of Italy. The director won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008 for Gomorrah, his defining, excoriating portrait of the Camorra crime syndicate, and he performed the trick again ten years later in Dogman, inspired by a gruesome gangland murder in Rome. He’s also had success in comedies (Reality) and fantasy (Tale of Tales), but his new film is an epic embracing the defining issue of Italian politics right now––the flow of refugees crossing the Mediterranean heading for Europe––making a potentially abstract, no-less-urgent topic tactile and approachable.

The migrant crisis is having a moment this year in European cinema, with Agnieszka Holland’s recent Green Border, also a prize winner at Venice (Io Capitano won Garrone the Best Director award), focusing on border issues in Eastern Europe. On the Mediterranean coast, the high watermark in recent years was a documentary, Gianfranco Rosi’s powerful Lampedusa-focused Fire at Sea, but significantly that tells the story from the Italian point of view and leaves Africans to figure (like in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash or Michael Haneke’s Happy End) somewhat in the background. 

Garrone is much more direct, centering instead on a headstrong teenager played in a star-making role by Seydou Sarr––like many of the cast, someone with no prior acting experience. He’s superb as a 16-year-old who flees Senegal with his cousin (Moustapha Fall) not from war or hunger, but to seek out his adolescent dream of making it rich as a musician in Europe. His mother, who doesn’t know Seydou has been working cash-in-hand to fund his illegal crossing, is aghast that people make the dangerous trip, railing at deserts and seas heaped with dead bodies. 

The early scenes in Senegal, despite Seydou’s relative poverty, are rich in music and color, filmed sumptuously by cinematographer Paolo Carnera. Later sequences of the perilous journey are more harshly photographed as hot and sticky under the unceasing sun. As when shooting Gomorrah, Garrone has people belonging to that world become part of the film, and Seydou’s illegal crossing of the desert feels like a story that has the influence of those who had made the trip. In interviews, Garrone said the screenplay was written as a kind of collage with young people who lived the experience.

Inevitably, Seydou’s naïve expectations of the journey to Europe are broken apart by cruel people-smugglers, violent cops, corrupt officials, even the Libyan mafia. There’s a tension in the unevenness of this journey––no parts are easy, some especially grim––but throughout Seydou retains an almost tragic sense of hope and idealism.

There are traps, however, with this kind of film, directed as it is by a white Italian on a script he co-wrote. Io Capitano doesn’t so much exploit the misfortunes of Seydou––any whitewashing of the horrors of migrant crossings would do damage to the film’s integrity––but Garrone does frame it in a Western filmmaking gaze. Its early part suggests a quirky road movie; scenes of the Sahara passage, while visually resplendent, feel more from The English Patient than contemporary realism, and there’s violence and a prison scene that could belong in Midnight Express. A magical-realist element involving a mystic African witch doctor seems more tokenistic than in keeping with the spirit of African culture. 

But steered by Sarr in a spellbinding performance, this is a mesmerizing watch for the most part, running the gamut of positive idealism at the film’s opening to clinging on to the vestiges of hope at the finale. The closing scenes––as Seydou becomes impromptu captain of the migrant ship taking hundreds of Africans to Sicily––are extraordinarily heart-stopping. Even his residual faith at the end is surely punctuated by the fact that, should he make it to Italy, a new set of troubles on land could just be about to start.

Io Capitano screened at the 2023 San Sebastián film festival and premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Grade: B

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