Film Review: Io Capitano finds the beauty in the brutal reality of a migrant’s journey towards freedom

Director Matteo Garrone has often flirted between reality and fantasy when telling his stories on screen.  His 2008 mafia drama Gomorrah and the crime-infused Dogman (2018) were steeped in a violent truth.  His English-language fantasy Tales of Tales (2015) and a live-action adaptation of Pinocchio (2019) allowed him to delight in the whimsical.  For Io Capitano, one of the Italian filmmaker’s finest works, he sticks to a mostly grim path, with the occasional injection of fantastical levity to keep us, as an audience, from completely succumbing to the story’s harshness.

These particular flourishes of artistic imagery may seem at odds with the majority of Io Capitano‘s 121 minutes, but it serves as a gorgeous insight into the story’s main character, Seydou (Seydou Sarr), who is put through the emotional – and oft physical – ringer as a 16-year-old Senegalese migrant hoping to make it to Italy with his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall), in a bid to escape poverty.

The shimmer of light that seems to always be encompassed by Seydou is evident from the moment we meet him.  In a rowdy household with younger siblings and his fatigued mother (Khady Sy), he hones an energy and a politeness that instantly warms us to him.  His reality is tough, but evidently bearable.  A sequence of him playing the drums in a street celebration, as his mother exhaustingly dances, speaks to his light and the musical aspirations he harbours; this trek with his cousin seemingly planned for quite some time.

The film’s title translating to “I, Captain” hints at the momentous journey ahead, and, indeed, Seydou is in charge of securing the movements of his destiny – but reaching that point comes at no easy cost.  There’s a sense of discomfort that Garrone laces the story with as the boys, who have been saving up for this trip for what appears to be months, find their earnings almost instantly depleted at the hands of the criminal and the corrupt.  Fake Malian passports and bribing a border guard not to arrest them when said passports are uncovered set them nearly back to zero, and whatever earnings they have left stashed on their person brings them unwanted attention when they are forcibly separated in a Libyan rebel raid.

The realisation that they may never see each other again becomes almost too emotionally taxing, but, despite Seydou’s placement in a torture chambered prison, the kindness of a fellow prisoner taking the scared boy under his wing keeps a certain hope alive.  And it’s that glimmer of hope that Garrone utilises to maintain audience interest throughout Io Capitano, even if we feel push to the edges of what we can handle in witnessing Seydou’s story; it’s never graphically depicted, but the emotional weight is consistently heavy that we beg the director for a moment to breathe.

But in us wanting to ask for levity comes the truth that Garrone, as a director, has successfully translated this story to screen.  He may not seem like the obvious choice to direct a Senegalese migrant story – he’s a white Italian separated from this depicted world – but Io Capitano never succumbs to any feeling of an exploitive nature.  There’s no white saviour moment.  No self-importance being served.  He’s an incredible filmmaker (empathetic, even) telling a story with an authenticity – despite his personal removal from what’s being told.  It’s the beauty of Sarr’s performance that sells us, and secures us, on Garrone’s storytelling decisions.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Io Capitano is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.