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Glasgow Film Festival 2024 – Io Capitano ★★★★



Released: 5th April 2024

Director:  Matteo Garrone

Starring: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall

2023 felt like a particularly successful year for Italian cinema, with two excellent films at Cannes – namely Rapito and La Chimera – and the commercial success of C’é Ancora Domani at the Italian box office at the end of the year. Not to mention, Io Capitano competed for the Golden Lion at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and two awards at the festival, the Silver Lion for direction and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Seydou Sarr. Needless to say, as an Italian film critic I was incredibly excited to watch Io Capitano, which is also the Italian entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2024 Academy Award. 

Io Capitano follows two Senegalese teenagers, Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) as they leave their hometown in Dakar to reach Italy, believing they will find a better future for themselves and escape poverty. To do so, they take on a journey of epic proportions crossing multiple countries in West Africa to reach their ultimate destination. On their way, they have to face multiple challenges such as the torture in the detention centres in Libya and the tumultuous and dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Sicily as Seydou attempts to lead all the passengers of the boat to safety. 

The cinematography in Io Capitano is particularly impressive and one of the elements that stands out most in the entire movie. The visuals of the film allow the audience to go on this epic journey with the characters every step of the way, thanks to its poignant depiction of Senegal, Mali, Niger, Libya, and finally the Mediterranean Sea. The cinematography also supports the film’s emotional scope, which is conveyed through Seydou Sarr’s brilliant and heart-breaking performance as the main character of the film. The latter also allows the film to keep its focus where it is strongest: the human beings at the centre of this journey. 

I also really liked the depiction of life in Senegal in the film. Io Capitano shows us what life looked like in Senegal for Seydou and Moussa. It is by no means easy and most likely very different from what most of us in the audience are used to, but it also shows its joys, as well as tribulations. This is particularly relevant as stories set in the African continent often tend to depict life in these countries as miserable: instead, this movie does a good job of showing how life in Senegal is much more than that.  

The scenes of torture, particularly the ones set in Libya, are bound to upset its viewers, but in a way that is the whole point of Io Capitano. Its extreme realism in these scenes only adds to the tragedy of what we are seeing: nothing is exaggerated for the plot, but nothing is spared either. The film forces us to sit with these fairly long sequences and how uncomfortable they are bound to make the audience, as we watch the horrors as they happen in the detention centre in Libya. We can’t bear to see those scenes on a screen so, the film seems to ask us, how do we stand silent and still as they unfold in everyday life right before our eyes?

Io Capitano is a great film, but it falls short of being excellent as the film makes it seem like once they arrive in Sicily at the end of the film, everything will be fine. Its Hollywood-like happy ending feels unauthentic compared to the realistic tone of the rest of the movie and downplays the real everyday tragedies in a country where at least 2,480 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean just in 2023 and over 100 people are criminalised for saving the lives of those who cross Italian national borders. Not to mention the horrific treatment they are bound to receive once they do arrive in Sicily, for those who are lucky enough to make it to shore.

While this joyful and glorious ending is satisfying to watch, it is fundamentally unlikely and untrue in most cases. I would have hoped to see more of a critique of the Italian immigration policies: considering the political climate the film was made in, I find it unacceptable and untruthful to not even touch on the matter. Io Capitano was released in Italy in the second half of 2023, in a day and age when the country’s strict anti-migration politics are costing a high life toll across the Mediterranean Sea and anti-migrant sentiments are rampant in the country. 

Overall, it feels like the film plays it too safe to please its mostly Western audience who can sit comfortably in their cinemas and watch Io Capitano without having to feel guilty about the actions of their own countries. I am not denying that the film makes its audience uncomfortable, but it does so only in regard to the circumstances in Libya and Niger. This allows its audience to feel a sense of disengagement from the entire situation: while the crimes portrayed are horrible and reprehensible, they are only happening somewhere else. This creates the idea, perhaps inadvertently, that something like this would never happen in Europe or the United States, thus absolving the Western governments, the Italian one that chose this film for the Oscars first and foremost, of their role in perpetuating this systemic injustice.  

Io Capitano is an undeniably well-made film and an excellent choice for the 2024 Oscars, even if the Best International Film category already has some very strong contenders as it is, first and foremost Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. But Matteo Garrone’s film also plays it too safe, falling short of illustrating the full extent of the horrors and tragedies most of these stories entail when we read them on the news, despite the documentary-like realism that defines the whole film. 

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