Io Capitano

In Dakar, sixteen year-old cousins Seydou (Seydou Sarar) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) entertain their peers with their songs and dream of doing the same to great fame in the Europe they view on their phones.  Although Seydou is very attached to his widowed mother (Khady Sy) and little sisters, he knows she’d never allow him to leave and so, with money saved from construction jobs and an okay from the local shaman, the two slip away on a trip to Italy that will be far more arduous than either could possibly conceive of in “Io Capitano.”

Laura's Review: A

Cowriter (with Massimo Gaudioso, Massimo Ceccherini, and Andrea Tagliaferri)/director Matteo Garrone ("Gomorrah," "Tale of Tales") takes a big leap forward with this epic adventure crafted from true stories of African migrants’ tragedy and triumph.  After finding his conclusion in teenager Amara Fofana’s extraordinary feat of steering a broken down tugboat with 250 passengers to the coast of Italy, Garrone discovered Mamadou Kouassi, a social worker for migrants in Southern Italy, who would provide most of the script’s additional stories, many of his own harrowing tale adopted by Seydou’s character.

The first thing we’ll notice in the film’s Dakar opening is the vibrant color reflecting Seydou’s home life.  Waking up in the poor wooden home, Seydou will be cast against walls painted emerald green, a color picked up in the design of his shirt.  He’ll be affectionately annoyed with the commotion of little girls trying on wigs, hats and dresses in yellow and purple and orange and blue and red.  Later that evening, he and Moussa will beat on drums as the girls dance wildly in their colorful attire, Seydou winking at his sister.  But when he tries on the idea of leaving for Europe to send money home, his mother shuts it down, telling him he will see nothing but bodies lying by the roadside, bodies everywhere.  Even the local black market dealer, Sisko (Cheick Oumar Diaw), tells them not to go, warning that the Europe on TV is not real.

But the boys take off, much of their money depleted for Malian passports that give them different names and pinpoint them for extortion at the first border crossing and although they are advised to conceal their cash where the sun don’t shine as they head into the Sahara, after a rough ride in the back of a pickup whose driver refuses to stop for anyone who’s fallen off followed by a trek through the sand where Seydou’s mother’s prophecy proves true, Libyan police will force them to drink laxatives to find their hidden money.  Because he lied, Moussa is dragged off while Seydou ends up in a prison run by the Libyan mafia who torture him for his mother’s telephone number.  But just as Seydou exhibited compassion to an older woman in the desert, her death imagined in a brilliant bit of magical realism by Garrone, he is looked after by an older man, Martin (Issaka Sawadogo) who saves them by volunteering to be trafficked as slave labor.

The film, which is in French and Wolof, is an obvious plea for compassion for people undergoing horrific circumstances in a bid for a better life, yet amidst this constant parade of horrors, humanity still peaks through, not only in Martin, but in the Senegalese community Seydou lands in in Tripoli and in Seydou himself.  Seydou Sarar, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the 80th Venice International Film Festival (where Garrone won Best Director), is a rapper and TikTok star making his feature debut here and he is extraordinary, conveying a vast range of emotions while shouldering the entire film through every scene.  Fall is a charming and sympathetic foil.   Sawadogo, one of the film’s few professional actors, makes a strong impression as Seydou’s paternal life saver, his presence still a promise at film’s end.

Director of photography Paolo Carnera’s (“The White Tiger”) contributions are invaluable, he and production designer Dimitri Capuani’s (“Dogman,” 2019’s “Pinocchio”) shifting color schemes conveying moods of joy, heat, despair and elation, Carnera’s camera emphasizing the vastness of the desert and sea.  Special effects are lovely, from the spirituality of that desert death to a magical dream sequence with an African fairy.  Andrea Farri’s Afropop score gives the film modern edge.

“Io Capitano” is Italy’s submission for the 2024 International Oscar and one of the five nominees.  It is the only one of the five that didn’t have a 2023 qualifying run for all the other categories, so could be a surprise – and deserving - winner.

Robin's Review: A-

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall), teenage Senegalese cousins, secretly save their money with the plan to leave home for the land of opportunity in Europe. They know they are going to make it big - until they face the life-threatening reality of their journey. But, it is too late for the two to turn back in “Io Capitano.”

Director Matteo Garrone brought us, in 2008, the Italian Mafia crime drama, “Gomorrah,” and, in 2015, the totally whacked fairy tale, “Tale of Tales,” which needs to be seen to be believed. His latest explores, through the eyes of Seydou, the process of the migrant plight to escape Africa for the “safety” of Europe.

Do not expect a white-washed version of noble refugees forced to leave their homes to escape to another, safer life. Seydou, only 16, has been stashing his hard earned cash at the construction site where he and Moussa work. To the naive teens, the bundle of money they have seems like a fortune – surely enough to get them easily to Italy with plenty to spare.

Then, the reality of their decision starts to chip away at their cash supply. First, they need to get (black market) passports and assume a new name and identity - $100 each. The costs mount up and they find themselves doling out $50 here, $80 there and soon the money begins to run out. They still must face the daunting task of crossing the Sahara Desert – on foot no less – and surviving the arduous and deadly journey. Then, Moussa is arrested and the cousins are separated. And they have not even gotten close to the Mediterranean Sea.

I will not continue describing Seydou and his cousin’s terrible journey to “freedom.” It is populated with people who want to take everything they can from the vulnerable migrants – even their lives. It is also, more scantly, populated with selfless people who are the “kindness of strangers” and helpers to the migrants they come across.

This is the best film by the director that I have seen to date. It is a true retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey” in reverse. Instead of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, returning home from the Trojan Wars, and all its perils of that trek, we have the brave Seydou facing his own monsters and perils as he leaves his home and family for a promised better life and a new future.

Once the story gets going, I found myself immersed in the intelligence, kindness and compassion of Seydou as he faces the daunting, seemingly impossible task of living his dream. The problem is, he may never achieve his mission and that is the draw to “Io Capitano.” You really want to know what is going to happen. I watched Seydou’s story (and those he represents) with fascination, respect and in awe of such resolve and it is inspirational.

Cohen Media releases "Io Capitano" in theaters on 2/23/24.  Click here for theater information.