Io Capitano

Text by Luca Pacilio

Photography Casper Kofi

At the Venice Film Festival’s closing ceremony, Seydou Sarr was visibly moved when he received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Young Actor. Overwhelmed with emotion, Sarr barely managed to express his gratitude. His performance in Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano, Italy’s Oscar contender in the International Feature Film category, was so impressive it’s hard to believe it was Sarr’s first acting experience, which he secured after competing against one hundred other candidates. He candidly admits: “Actually, my dream was to become a football player.”

Director Matteo Garrone’s guidance was crucial for Sarr’s performance. Struck by the young actor’s natural ease in the role, he offered support and direction. Garrone chose not to provide the actors with the entire movie script to keep the performances authentic. Instead, they only received the pages of scenes they were about to shoot, allowing them to immerse themselves more genuinely in their characters’ uncertainties, doubts, and fears, unaware of the story’s eventual resolution. The film crew continued their support for Sarr well beyond the production. He spent a year living with Matteo Garrone’s mother and now shares a home in Fregene, near Rome, with Moustapha Fall, his co-star. Sarr recounts: “I hadn’t met Moustapha before; our first encounter was at the Dakar casting, and we instantly connected. Seeing us now, one might think we’ve been brothers or friends for years.” The production is also assisting them in navigating the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles to secure their residence permits.

Although the character Seydou Sarr portrayed in Io Capitano shares his same name, there is no direct correlation between their personalities other than a generational connection. The real Seydou Sarr never contemplated emigration and, before filming, had only a vague understanding of the dangers associated with the journey many of his fellow citizens undertake to reach Europe. In the film, the protagonist is led by his cousin Moussa to leave his homeland, the safety of his home, and the care of a loving mother to embark on a journey that becomes an extreme test of survival. Starting from Dakar, the two face the harshness of the desert, endure torture in Libyan detention centres, and see their paths unexpectedly diverge, only to reunite in Tripoli. There, Seydou is forced to take charge of the boat that will carry them, along with many other refugees, towards the Italian coast.

Matteo Garrone’s directorial journey, culminating in Io Capitano, for which he won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, began in documentary filmmaking. Yet, his works are not mere reflections of harsh and degraded realities but rather marked by a transformative gaze, a deconstructed writing style, and a visual quest that underlines a strongly subjective perspective. His is a reinterpretation of reality that skillfully navigates between language experimentation and genre—as seen in Estate Romana (2000), L’imbalsamatore (2002), and Gomorra (2008), the latter being conceptually closest to his latest work. This exploration has coherently encompassed fantasy and fable while maintaining the same auteur prerogatives—most evident in Il Racconto dei Racconti (2015) and Pinocchio (2019). In Io Capitano, Garrone confronts the drama of immigration head-on, seemingly deviating from the visionary and baroque taste of his previous works. Yet, this is not entirely a departure for Garrone, who has been familiar with the subject since his debut. His first feature film, Terra di Mezzo (1997), wove together three episodes dedicated to different immigrant figures against the backdrop of Roman streets.

From his early works, Matteo Garrone established an original style, stepping away from the worn paths of neo-neorealism. He decided to frame characters and environments in unexpected perspectives, avoiding flat naturalism and using cinematic language free of rhetoric or sentimentality. These characteristics are also found in Io Capitano, narrated from the viewpoint of the innocent and naive Seydou, a modern, pure-hearted Pinocchio and accompanied by Moussa, his tempting Candlewick, Seydou dreams of reaching Europe, a metaphorical Land of Toys, leaving behind loved ones and certainties. Much like the wooden puppet, Seydou’s journey is filled with diverse encounters and experiences, a path of growth and self-discovery in line with the classic coming-of-age narrative. Io Capitano thus emerges as a Bildungsroman, blending fairy-tale elements, slices of magical realism, and an extraordinary dreamlike sequence that oscillates between mirage and apparition. It encapsulates a significant life lesson characteristic of traditional fables.

The adventurous spirit of the film never softens the dramatic intensity or the harshness of the situations depicted. While steering clear of the didactic tendencies of more conventional social cinema and breaking the confines of realism to touch upon a visionary dimension, Io Capitano retains the urgency of a film that portrays a contemporary tragedy. It presents the image of a people in motion against the backdrop of a majestic yet ruthless nature. The film’s final part, set at sea with Seydou commanding the boat heading towards the Italian coast, echoes the tragic and complex tones of a grand 19th-century novel. Seydou, at 16, assumes a role larger than his years, resolutely intending to reach his destination and save everyone aboard, adding layers of depth and nuance to the film’s narrative.

Another crucial aspect of Garrone’s film is that it depicts emigration not just as a necessity but as an aspiration—similar to the desires of those in affluent Western countries—that extends to everyone and not solely to those forced to flee their homeland. Seydou and Moussa, the film’s protagonists, are not fleeing their village out of desperation, hunger, war, or persecution. In Senegal, their life is simple, but it’s dignified and free from severe hardships or poverty. The two embark on their journey into the unknown not because they have no choice but because they are chasing a dream: to become music stars—a goal they ambitiously name ‘Europe’. These two young men are driven by an artistic aspiration that they are eager to fulfil at any cost, and for the sake of this aspiration, they are willing to endure the risks of the journey.

In his focus on the motivations behind Seydou and Moussa’s departure, Garrone challenges a prevalent cultural automatism: the tendency to see immigrants as just numbers, an anonymous group without individual stories, a group without a distinct identity. This view perpetuates a single, unchanging narrative shaped by media and television news—a narrative that simplifies and strips away the meaning from images of desperate people crossing borders, boats adrift at sea, and survivors on rocky shores. Garrone shifts the typical Western audience’s perspective from Europe to Africa. He offers a fresh angle, one that arises from the land of those who live the migrant experience firsthand, from their actual daily lives. His storytelling comes from a meticulous gathering of real-life accounts that paint what we see as a modern-day Odyssey, as underlined by Garrone himself: “Seydou and Moussa are the protagonists of a true contemporary epic.”

The director skillfully shifts the narrative focus from the destination to the journey itself, emphasising the motivations, emotions, and internal struggles of those who choose to leave. This approach highlights the diverse nature of emigration, rooted in varying premises and reasons. The film mainly explores the experiences of two teenagers, embodying the aspirations of their age and representing a generation of Africans who view it as an injustice that Europeans can easily and comfortably vacation in their lands while they face no similar ease of access to Europe, except through the dangerous path of clandestine travel. The film subtly probes the legislative realities confronting a phenomenon that challenges the social and pluralistic values of European democracies, particularly Italy. It subtly addresses the broader, chaotic debate on the management of state borders, including the extreme right’s rhetoric of ethnic replacement, conspiracy theories, the dilemmas of sea rescues, the closing of ports, and the rising trend of erecting physical and ideological barriers.

Without explicitly stating it, the film addresses the absence of safe and legal channels for crossing borders, emphasising the dire consequences of this situation. It suggests that establishing such safe pathways is essential not only to curb the cruel human trafficking trade but also to disrupt the illicit activities and related exploitations that enable its existence. Io Capitano touches on all these points, engaging the viewer without resorting to sensationalism or emotional manipulation, relying solely on the power of its imagery and the strength of its storytelling, with Seydou’s clear-eyed perspective guiding the narrative.

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Text by Luca Pacilio