Io Capitano
Photograph: Altitude
  • Film
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Io Capitano

4 out of 5 stars

Magic and misery are the compass points on Matteo Garrone’s widescreen migrant odyssey

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Stark social drama meets boy’s own adventure in this strikingly photographed African-set, Oscar-nominated adventure. 

It’s a combination that should be very easy to get very wrong. In fact, it’s hard to think of too many filmmakers who have even tried it – at least since Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951) mashed up neorealist grind and flying kids on broomsticks. Alice Rohrwacher, too. But with Io Capitano, their fellow Italian Matteo Garrone frames the sorrows and struggles of two African kids as they slog across the continent with steel and sensitivity. It’s wildly exciting in places, horrifying in others, without ever feeling exploitative of a real-world crisis that is claiming the lives of boys just like them.

The title literally translates as ‘Me, the captain' – a reference to a moment of heroism on a fateful boat journey that awaits the film’s protagonist, Senegalese teenager Seydou (Seydou Sarr). There are faint echoes of Captain Phillips’ ‘I’m the captain now!’, uttered by Barkhad Abdi’s Somali pirate – although here all the pirates are on land.

Seydou is what the western media would call ‘an economic migrant’. With his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall), he sets off from Dakar on an African odyssey that points hopefully for Italy, with dreams of a better life and money to send home, but only the vaguest notion of how he’ll achieve it. What he’s leaving behind – a horrified mum, loving siblings and a home – is a source of melancholy that lurks in the fabric of the film. 

Newcomer Seydou Sarr gives this hard-hitting drama a heart of gold

The feeling that Seydou and Moussa have made a fatal error hangs over their journey across the Sahara. It comes into horrific focus when a fellow traveller falls off their pick-up and the people smugglers drive on with supreme indifference. Just when things seem bleakest, as a woman who reminds Seydou of his mum dies under the baking Saharan sun, Garrone throws in an extraordinary grace note: the woman floats into the air and Seydou guides her onwards, as if carrying a balloon. 

Seydou’s reverie is quickly banished as the pair endure cavity searches at border crossings, constant shakedowns, and even torture at a mafia-run prison. Like wounded animals circled by vultures, Io Capitano shows how exploitation stalks them on every step of their journey, long before they get to Europe. 

Garrone, who brought docudrama techniques to 2008’s ferocious gangster drama Gomorrah, could have made the same call here. Instead, he and cinematographer Paolo Carnera’s shimmering landscapes and editor Marco Spoletini’s brisk dissolves add beauty and pacy storytelling to this harsh journey.

Best of all, though, is terrific newcomer Seydou Sarr, whose performance is full of guilelessness and spirit. He gives this hard-hitting drama a heart of gold.

In UK cinemas Apr 5.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Matteo Garrone
  • Screenwriter:Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Andrea Tagliaferri, Massimo Ceccherini
  • Cast:
    • Moustapha Fall
    • Seydou Sarr
    • Bamar Kane
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