“Mom, I have to go. Look where we live, our house is coming down.” These are the words Seydou, the protagonist of Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano, uses while he’s telling his mom about his intention to leave Dakar, Senegal to reach Europe. One must wonder how many people who undertake the terrifying journey from Africa or the Middle East to that promised land called Europe have that same thought in mind. With this film, premiering in competition at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, Garrone wants to give voice to these people and shed some light on the perils that their journey entails.
Seydou and Moussa are cousins, they are 16, they live in Dakar, and they dream of moving to Europe. They want to become stars, make money and live large in the Old Continent. They have been working relentlessly for over six months to accumulate enough money to make the trip from Africa to Europe. They have been doing that secretly, as they don’t want their plan to be known, especially by Seydou’s mom, who warns him that many people have died in the African desert or in the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, Seydou and Moussa leave Senegal. The reality of their trip comes very soon in their faces: the hike through the desert is grueling, they keep getting extorted money, and they also end up in one of the feared Libyan prisons, a theater of ruthless torture. The journey that was supposed to take them to Europe instantly becomes a journey of survival, where they have to muster up every possible ounce of courage to make out of it alive.
The narrative that surrounds the migrant crisis is that they’re often fleeing wars, natural disasters or extreme poverty, and that is of course true. One of the best aspects of Io Capitano is that it shines a light on a different type (for lack of a better word) of migrant: Seydou and Moussa are not desperately poor, they’re not starving, they’re not at imminent risk of death, and yet they still go through infernal ordeals to reach a different continent. It is a perfectly legitimate decision on their part, and it’s the decision of many ancestors of Americans, Canadians or Australians of European descent. They hoped to build a better life somewhere else, and they grabbed that opportunity. With this premise, it becomes almost natural to sympathize with Seydou and Moussa, and it helps that the actors chosen for the roles, Seydou Sarr, who gives an absolutely riveting debut performance, and Moustapha Fall embody those characters with the same spirit of their fictional counterparts: they know how to channel the playfulness of Seydou and Moussa, and they also know how to convey the horror that they witness.
What fails to have the right impact is the movie around them. One would expect a movie with the premise of Io Capitano to be as hard-hitting and harrowing as another movie about the refugee crisis that recently screened at the festival (Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border). The sequence set in the Libyan prison does not leave much of an impact, especially considering how horrific a Libyan prison is in real life. For fear of turning his movie into a form of torture or misery porn, Garrone shies away from the harsh reality of such a perilous journey. It’s a movie that desperately seeks an unsatisfying balance: it wants to tell without showing, resulting in what feels more like an adventure than a life-threatening mission. In this sense, the cinematography is exemplary: the movie is beautifully shot, and it is indeed beautiful to watch, but it shouldn’t be. The colors are too bright, the camera is too static, the danger is not palpable enough. Only the last act, set on the boat that takes the migrants from Tripoli to Italy, is able to fully convey the chaos of such a mission.
Now, Io Capitano is not a bad movie by all means: despite the length, it doesn’t drag, it is very well acted and shot. It just is too slight for its own good, and it feels like a missed opportunity.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution for lo Capitano at this time.