Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano is an Astonishing and Urgent Cry for Compassion and Action

Italian director Matteo Garrone has cycled through many genres to tell Italian stories. Whether it be a version of Pinocchio, a bleak crime drama, Gomorra, or an anthology based on Italian folk and fairytales, Tale of Tales – Garrone centres Italy. It may lead people to wonder why his newest, and arguably best, work Io Capitano is based around a punishing odyssey two Senegalese teens make from Dakar trying to get to Europe. It doesn’t seem like an Italian story but scratch beneath the surface and one will find Garrone quietly pronouncing a mea culpa on behalf of Italy and its funding of Libyan militia to keep refugees and migrants from touching Italian soil.

First time actor Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall are sixteen-year-old cousins living in Dakar and dreaming of making it big in the music business. Seydou (Sarr) is a precious and empathetic young man who adores his family, especially his mother (Khady Sy) and younger sister (Venus Gueye). They have very little — Seydou’s father died and wants to make money to support the household. Fed a diet of European and American culture through everything from his knockoff slave labour luxury brand clothing, passion for soccer, and idealised advertising, music, and quick bites he scrolls though on his phone with Moussa (Fall) — Seydou has decided he will risk it all with his cousin to make a new life benefiting everyone. They will be world conquering musicians. Europe is just waiting for them to take to the stage.

Garrone shows the material reality of Seydou and Moussa. Hard labour on streets which are shanty towns. But he doesn’t dwell on the poverty. Instead, he shows a community filled with music, beauty, and tradition. A glorious sequence filmed at a sabar where the men drum and the women dance (kaay fecc!) speaks to the vibrancy and power of Seydou’s mother and sisters and simpatico community. Leaving his family to join Moussa on their grand adventure is based on faith not certainty.

No matter how many times Seydou and Moussa are told they will encounter horror and dead bodies if they leave, Moussa keeps pushing Seydou. When they enquire about leaving with Sisko a market man, he tells them vehemently that it is not better in Europe. People die on the streets. They freeze. Those who are not already corpses in the sand or at the bottom of the ocean. Seydou’s mother cries when he suggests he will go away. “Those who left are dead. You want to help? You stay here and breathe the air I breathe.”

Remaining deeply conflicted Seydou and Moussa visit a charlatan who tells them to ask permission from the ancestors to leave. He sends them to a cemetery which is mostly destroyed rubble with too many graves to count. “Watch over my family,” Seydou begs. “I know what I’m doing is wrong. Please let my mother forgive me.”

With what Moussa and Seydou consider a fortune, they leave one morning. Ready to take their rap music and “vibes” out into the world (a space for conversation about White people allying with “cultural product” and not people is opened).

What begins with exhilaration becomes two innocents being set upon by jackals and hyenas. Every stop they make robs them of something material, yet Moussa and Seydou’s union is what keeps them afloat. They are in a sea of tussling people. Some give and share, many just take. From a man making passports he knows will not pass when the pair reach a checkpoint to be shaken down when entering Nigeria, to the smugglers promising to get them to Libya.

Moussa and Seydou and the many families including children are simply ‘objects’ to the seemingly ad-hoc operation. Precariously holding on to just a piece of wood in a flatbed truck, Seydou watches with dawning horror as a man is flung off the vehicle and left to die in the Sahara. Everything is amalgamating to rob him of his humanity. Yet he simply cannot stop being human, putting himself at risk to aid a woman who is flailing on the long trek on foot and dies in his arms.

Starvation, dehydration, getting lost, and heatstroke have claimed many lives. Just as they were warned, there are bodies in the sand. Seydou’s mind creates mirages where he returns to the lost woman who calls him son. He takes her hand, and she floats weightlessly above her.

The nightmare is far from over by the time they reach Libya. The Libyan militia shake down the already terrified migrants. Moussa who was advised to stick their money in his anus is forced to drink a powerful laxative. The money is found, and he is carted off to jail. Seydou cries after them to take him with Moussa. For everything the two have already gone through, separation is the most crushing.

Everyone else is picked up by a truck and taken to a facility in Sabhā. They are separated into ethnic groups. Seydou and the others are told they will be held for ransom unless they get their family to pay. Mass torture is happening. Seydou is beaten and held in stress positions.[i]

Seydou is left barely alive his ribs are fractured and he is feverish. His fever dream is a Malaaka (Wolof for angel) sending a message to his mother that he is alive and that he is sorry. The feathered bird-child chimera allows Seydou to follow him while he whispers in his mother’s ear. Seydou is behind glass and cannot be heard. He wakes up crying “mama, mama, mama,” and finds Martin (Issaka Sawagodo) a gentle father figure cradling him as he wakes. All Seydou has now is fight or flight. But with Martin’s wisdom and warmth he has found someone he can trust.

The idea of trust, loyalty, and love overcoming extreme adversity might appear a little pat. But Garonne’s film is about what it means to be considered human. Human beings: not property (Seydou and Martin are sold as forced labour), not an unending and replaceable resource building fountains, or cities, not coerced domestic servitude. Not a body that is simply cargo. The colonies who took from Africa: including the Dutch, English, French, Belgian. American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian retain blood on their hands. It is easy to point the finger at a trafficker or smuggler and say, “There is the bad guy.” It’s harder to admit that Italy in conjunction with Libya is deliberately causing human rights violations.

In Tripoli Seydou says goodbye to Martin who says he will be building beautiful fountains in Naples. Seydou has not for one second given up hope that he will find Moussa. They are bonded. It is their journey. Although Tripoli is happy to profit from cheap migrant labour, the city refuses to give aid to a “Black body.” Thus, a network of migrants and refugees from all over West Africa become a relay service for each other. Nigerians, Mauritanians, Senegalese, Guineans, and Ivorians collectivise.

Moussa is found. Barely conscious and his spirit is shattered until he realises he is with Seydou again. Seydou attends to his emotional needs; but as he was shot escaping prison, he has urgent physical needs. A doctor working on a building site does what he can to patch Moussa up with black market medication, but unless Moussa gets to a hospital, he will lose his leg.

Moussa’s safety is the impetus which drives Seydou to Ahmed (Hichem Yacoubi) who is smuggling people on rickety boats. Seydou can take Moussa on the boat and head to Italy on the proviso he captains the barely seaworthy vessel crammed with souls. Seydou is under eighteen and therefore absolves Ahmed of criminal liability if he is caught.

To undertake such a responsibility is more than Seydou can cope with. Yet time is running out for Moussa and he refuses to lose him again. He refuses to lose anyone again. He refuses to lose himself.

Scarred, scared, starving, and suffering people are crossing the Mediterranean with a boy who can’t even swim as their only hope. Seydou is told to call using the GPS phone if there are problems, and of course problems arise. They don’t really know where they are. They mistake Libyan oil rigs for land (again Garonne pointing out Italian complicity). People have been sleeping in the toxic engine room. A woman is undergoing a dangerous birth. Seydou calls for help but is being lied to. No one is coming. He is the captain. Seydou, with the help of Allah, with the help of God, and his strength of character will provide safe harbour.

Garrone and cinematographer Paolo Carnera document both the macro and micro of the journey. Sweeping shots of the Sahara Desert, the streets of Senegal, and regions in Morocco replacing places where it would have been impossible to film. The camera trained on the faces and eyes of the people for which it is advocating.

Seydou Sarr is riveting. A young Senegalese teen when cast who knew nothing of the craft of acting. Sarr’s face is just as much a map of the journey as the locations. His gaze when regarding his mother and sister is filled with such love and regret. His humour, warmth, and compassion both balance and amplify the darkness. He is a luminous flame that cannot be snuffed out. Every moment of pain he goes through provokes a visceral response from the viewer to want to enfold him in an embrace.

Sarr’s chemistry with the slightly more experienced Moustapha Fall rings with authenticity. We believe these boys are as one. The off the cuff raps they perform written on scraps of paper, the naïve hope they have for a better life, the jokes, the tender washing of a body caked in mud and showing the scars of brutalisation. Garonne doesn’t need to beg the audience to acknowledge their fragility and resilience — it is writ large.

Although Garonne wrote the script with several Italian collaborators, the story is inspired by thousands of migrant stories. In particular Fofana Amara a Guinean who at the age of fourteen did captain a migrant ship from Tripoli to Sicily, and Mamadou Kouassi an Ivorian who spent three years trying to get to Europe. Much of that time was spent in illegal detention centres and his firsthand experience of torture and maltreatment were so indispensable for Garonne’s writing he receives a story credit on the film.

Although Seydou, Martin, Moussa, and others can be read as “economic” migrants — Garonne doesn’t pin down the reasons the other families and individuals are there. There are wars the Western world is deliberately looking away from. Shadow dictatorships in democratic countries. Civil unrest and violence in others. the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire is resource rich but the average life expectancy for both men and women is well under the age of fifty. Guinea is a dictatorship. Burkina Faso is considered one of the most volatile and dangerous countries in the world. It all tends to go in the “too hard basket” because very few Western countries want to own up to the oppression they either participated in as colonial powers or admit that centuries of exploitation of African people helped them stay rich.

Matteo Garonne might have heard of Fofana Amara and imagined a Jack London The Sea-Wolf struggle; but what he has captured in Io Capitano isn’t a veiled philosophical adventure — it’s an urgent cry for compassion and action. Beautiful, inspiring, tragic, and terrifying. Io Capitano is astonishing.

Director: Matteo Garrone

Cast: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo

Writers: Matteo Garrone, Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso, Andrea Tagliaferri, (collaborating writers: Amara Fofana, Mamadou Kouassi Pli Adama, Arnaud Zohin, Brhane Tareka, Siaka Doumbia, Chiara Leonardi, Nicola Di Robilant)


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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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