Review of “Io Capitano”, Matteo Garrone’s big chance at an Oscar

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Review Io Capitano. Hopeful yet cruel, dreamlike yet extremely grounded in reality. Matteo Garrone’s latest cinematic endeavour is a visually stunning masterpiece that blends contrasting elements in a seamless manner, while narrating the compelling story of a young African kid.

Seydou (played by senegalese actor Seydou Paul Sarr) is ready to embark on a journey towards Europe, in the hopes of becoming successful and provide economic support to his own family. The script was written by Garrone himself together with Massimo Gaudioso, Massimo Ceccherini e Andrea Tagliaferri, and is based on real-ife experiences of 5 African migrants, namely Kouassi Pli Adama Mamadou, Arnaud Zohin, Amara Fofana, Brhane Tareke e Siaka Doumbia. 

The movie premiered last year during the 80th Venice International Film Festival, where it garnered huge success. Indeed, the first screening received a 13-minute-long standing ovation, after which the film went on to win the “Leone d’Argento” award for the best direction. Young actor Seydou Paul Sarr also received the “Marcello Mastroianni Award” for his role as protagonist. After being released in Italy on 7 September 2023 (23 February 2024 in the U.S.) the movie collected further praise from the critics. It also earned important nominations, in particular those for “Best Foreign Language Film” in this year’s Golden Globe Awards, and for “Best International Feature Film” at the 96th Academy Awards, which will take place on 10 March.

Review Io Capitano

The plot

Seydou is a Senegalese teenager who lives with his mother and his sisters in Dakar. Together with his cousin and best-friend Moussa, they have been secretly planning their escape to Europe, in order to pursue their dream of becoming rich and successful artists. Seydou is the more dubious and timorous of the two, and when he attempts to confess his intentions to his mother he encounters a fierce rebuttal. The two therefore leave without alerting their families. The journey will soon turn out to be tumultuous and very dangerous. After being stopped by Libyan police in the desert, Seydou and Moussa are split. The former is sent to prison for trying to hide his remaining money. The protagonist is sent to a different detention centre where he will face torture.

Review Io Capitano

While being detained, he befriends an older man, who becomes a sort of father figure to him. They are able to get out of prison together, and they eventually reach Tripoli. Here, the man and Seydou are forced to say goodbye to each other. Indeed, the protagonist must first rescue Moussa before being able to continue the journey. After a period living in Tripoli and working in building sites, Seydou is finally able to reunite with his long lost friend. Moussa, however, is badly injured and in need of urgent medical attention, which is not available for Senegalese immigrants in the Libyan capital.

Therefore, the only way for the protagonist to save his friend is to complete the journey and reach Italy as soon as possible. He therefore contacts Ahmed, a fixer who organises mediterranean crossings. Although the two do not have enough money, he allows them to join in the expedition. On the only condition that Seydou must become captain of the boat. Seydou is therefore presented with a final challenge: becoming a true leader and taking all of his passengers to Italy alive.

Review Io Capitano

A visual masterpiece

One of the things that jumps to the eye watching this movie is Garrone’s ability to enrich what is a rather simple and linear narration through elements of African mysticism and dreamlike form which blend perfectly with the realistic aspects of the tale and always serve a narrative purpose of closure, comfort or renewed hope. Furthermore, the photography of the movie is gorgeous, partly because of the breathtaking African landscapes being portrayed, but also because of the masterful use of light, shade and highly contrasting colour palettes that express stark differences in mood and environment.

The soundtrack is also varied and complements perfectly the imagery of the film. For example, the first 20 minutes of the movie are filled with scenes of frenetic noise, energy, rhythm, and very warm and saturated colours. This differs a lot from the sequence of the desert march, in which the colours are duller, less contrasted, making it seem as if the sand could merge into the white sky, with a soundtrack in the background being so deafening quite and monotonous.

Review Io Capitano

What will happen to the captain?

Finally, the movie holds a very important function, meaning that of humanising the figure of the African immigrant. Sadly, this figure is too often generalised and perceived negatively from the get-go. How often do we hear about immigrants being but a nuisance, a problem that needs to be taken care of? Stories of tragedies on the southern Mediterranean waters have become the norm, people are desensitised when it comes to groups of people losing their lives at sea. It is hard to ever take into consideration the individual, his story, and the sheer desperation needed to even attempt such a risky feat.

This is an important movie for this very reason, it allows us to empathise. The open finale of the movie is, in this regard, a direct call to us spectators. You have followed his journey to this very moment, you have seen what he has gone through, and you know that the hardships will not be over once he will make it into the European soil. So, how would you treat Seydou when he reaches your country? It is up to us to make sure Seydou’s story continues.

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