Io Capitano (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Matteo Garrone, Italy-Belgium-France, 2023, 121 mins, subtitles

Cast: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo

Review by Colin Dibben

In every sense an epic for our times, told with focus on the human foibles of its characters, Italy’s nomination for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards is a tense and rewarding watch.

Seydou (Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Fall) are Senegalese teenagers, dreaming of a better life in Europe. Leaving behind their close-knit and loving families, they undertake a perilous cross-continental journey to Tripoli in Libya. There, they hope to make the money to buy their way onto an illegal boat headed for Sicily.

Despite the often horrific things that happen on their journey, Seydou and Moussa find the strength and adaptability to go onwards to their goal.

The film has viewer empathy at its heart, and that’s important given this is the flipside to our news stories about refugees landing in dinghies on the Kent coast. It is hard not to feel that Seydou’s misplaced dreams become real as the film progresses; he comes to deserve and own them as their journey progresses and his strength of character emerges. Hey, we need more young people like Seydou in the UK. It’s how we would treat them when they got here that is the real problem.

Matteo Garrone’s approach is both epic and human, as befits the human epic which is unfolding in as the impoverished global south heads north. It focuses on what Seydou does and witnesses and feels. At the same time, the camera soars above the Sahara desertscapes as the refugees track across it and even the cramped prison sequences have a wide scope to them. The whole film is very easy on the eye.

This sense of space, of possible freedom, is important to the film’s ethos. And not just in the desert. The sequence on the Tripoli shore, with Seydou rushing around looking for Moussa as displaced workers wander monad-like around a desolate concretised shoreline, power tools in hand, suggests possibilities: for friendship, community building and solidarity even more than for casual, piecemeal work.

On the other hand, the final part of the film, set on a rotting old fishing boat packed with people, is terrifyingly claustrophobic, especially when panic sets in amongst the refugees. But it culminates in a heroic moment that gives the film its title, rather than any more realistic tragedy.

The large-scale approach feels like the right approach to the subject to make us in Europe take note. Some will find ‘ownership’ of the project problematic. Director and co-writer Garrone is a successful white, middle-aged film director with a track record of critically acclaimed films. His films often address social issues (Gomorroah, Reality) and nod to folkloric storytelling modes (Tale of Tales). And Io Capitano does all that too. But, then, the film is aimed fairly at us in Europe, who tend not to see the heroic aspects of migrants arriving in dinghies in Sicily, Lesbos or Kent.

Io Capitano is in cinemas from 5 April 2024.