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Io capitano
Me Captain

Directed by Matteo Garrone
Produced by Matteo Garrone and Paolo Del Brocco
Written by Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Massimo Ceccherini, and Andrea Tagliaferri
With: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo, Hichem Yacoubi, Doodou Sagna, and Ndeye Khady Sy
Cinematography: Paolo Carnera
Editing: Marco Spoletini
Music: Andrea Farri
Runtime: 121 min
Release Date: 07 September 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

One of the great joys of both not knowing anything about a film prior to entering the theater and being dyslexic is that I often go to a movie not only with minimal expectations but sometimes even my smallest assumptions I might make are wiped clear in the first few minutes. In the case of Io capitano, all I knew was the title and that it was Italy's submission for the Best International Oscar, and since my mind read the title as El Capitoano, I naturally assumed it was about a junior officer in World War II or a famous footballer. Such was my surprise to discover in the first few minutes it was a story taking place in Senegal. I realized I hadn't seen a contemporary Senegalese movie since Ousmane Sembène’s Faat Kiné in 2000. So seeing a film set in Dakar with such vibrant digital cinematography, a seemingly decent budget, drone shots, etc. was thrilling from the get-go. At first, the film seemed like it might be about two cousins who become pop stars, but it quickly transformed into a riveting, often harrowing, tale of migrants undergoing the gauntlet of physical, emotional, and psychological hell as they attempt a journey to what they hope will be a better life in a place with more opportunities.

The film follows two Senegalese teenagers, played by first-time actors Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, who decide to seek their fortunes in Europe. Their plan is to get some fake passports, cross the Sahara desert, and travel north via Niger and Libya to Italy, where they can become famous musical performers. They're warned by many not to attempt this dangerous journey, but they are young and strong and idealistic; how arduous could the trip be? Well, it turns out to be pretty damn arduous. These boys don't realize they are becoming part of the thousands of migrants who attempt to enter Europe without proper documentation and become victims of traffickers, police, mafia, and all kinds of predatory groups who have built a thriving illegal economy around the exploitation of illegal immigrants. The boys are soon separated and imprisoned, barely escaping death multiple times. Fortunately, they are young and strong. This is especially true of Seydou, the film’s protagonist. The actor, Seydou Sarr, not only shares his character's name but also his seeming ability to handle whatever is thrown at him. 2023 saw more than two dozen amazing performances by actors under eighteen, but this is one of the very best.

Working with three co-writers, including the prolific Italian comedian, director, and screenwriter Massimo Ceccherini, Italian director Matteo Garrone, who made the crime drama Gomorrah (2008), the horror anthology Tale of Tales (2015), and one of the umpteen versions of Pinocchio released in the last five years, drew on multiple accounts of Senegalese migrants who left their West African home for myriad reasons. Thus, while the story is fictional, many of the incidents depicted feel drawn from real life. Occasionally, the story departs from its reality-based grounding, and we venture inside Seydou's mind for visually stunning interludes that are literal flights of fancy. There are only two of these "dream sequences," and the storytelling "rule of three" causes Western-narrative-minded viewers like me to expect a third. That expectation makes the film's powerful but slightly ambiguous ending feel all the more uncertain, which is not a drawback.

An epic journey of this kind often calls for a lengthy film, and I certainly would not have objected had this movie been 20 to 30 minutes longer. Garrone, his co-writers, and his regular editor, Marco Spoletini, pace the picture beautifully. They enable the episodic story to grow and develop rather than spiral into a repetitive series of disconnected chapters. Still, I'd have happily spent more time with Seydou reflecting on his situation as it constantly changes in each section of the film—especially when he is saved from prison by a builder who briefly takes him under his wing. This act of kindness and the brief apprenticeship that follows is a major contributor to Seydou's incredible resilience.

Part of what I loved so much about Io capitano is the cinematography by Paolo Carnera. Over the last couple of decades, drone photography has transformed from a revelatory tool for both narrative and documentary filmmakers into a kind of generic and expected cliché. However, the use of drones in the sequence where the migrants cross the Sahara desert is breathtaking. Watching these sundrenched sequences, I kept thinking, why would anyone want to watch fantasy confections like Dune when they could watch something with real-world stakes like this? Equally powerful are the close-ups of Seydou's face. The camera often lingers on his expressions as he takes in the extraordinary events he is experiencing. Yet, unlike another contender for this year's Best International Feature Oscar, Society of the Snow, this largely exterior film understands there is more to mise en scene than high-angle drone shots and extreme close-ups of faces.

While the variety of the visual language in this movie is impressive, and the performances by its young, inexperienced stars are stunning, Io capitano succeeds best in what I am sure is its primary goal—to humanize the stories of migrants from all over the world, and generate empathy for the dire predicaments so many hundreds of thousands face when they embark on journeys like the one depicted in this film. Seydou and Moussa may be fictional, and their motivations may be somewhat frivolous and naive, but their story places us directly into the shoes of those who risk unspeakable horrors and exploitation in the hopes of finding a better life.

Twitter Capsule:

First-time actor Seydou Sarr gives one of the best juvenile performances in a year of extraordinary turns by kids and teens in Matteo Garrone's riveting, exquisitely shot film about two Senegalese teenagers who attempt the harrowing migrant journey from Dakar to Sicily.