AFI Fest 2023 Review: Hope Buoys Matteo Garrone’s Moving Migration Tale “Io Capitano”

There’s a driving electric guitar in the score for “Io Capitano” that lets you know from the jump that Matteo Garrone isn’t about to approach the plight of migrants in a somber way, on the run with Moussa (Moustapha Fall) and Seydou (Seydou Sarr), two teens from Senegal that have dreams of making it to Europe. They aren’t being forced to flee as so many are by war or poverty, but a belief that something better is waiting for them in another part of the world, an idea that no shortage of elders are eager to disabuse them of, yet they still stash away money to finance by working jobs that their families aren’t aware of and it is telling that when Seydou’s mother gets upset with him for not checking his phone while he’s at work, he turns her admonition “You didn’t see my calls” into the chorus of a song he sings with friends in the street.

A treacherous journey is recast as an adventure in the eyes of these young men, which fits well where “Io Capitano” resides in the filmography of its director, who made a career-defining splash with the hyper-realistic mafia drama “Gomorrah” 15 years ago and has impressively taken steps out of the shadow it cast by veering towards surreal comedies such as “Reality” and “Tale of Tales.” In another director’s hands, “Io Capitano” might ape the desaturated and handheld style that Garrone deployed to such great and gritty effect in “Gomorrah” when the tale is inevitably harrowing, but Garrone can offer something more subversive now when he sees Moussa and Seydou’s innocence helps them persevere, curious about the oceans and deserts that they cross rather than fearing them for the hazards that they are. Their actions may make no sense to anyone but themselves on screen when they’re responsible for their own peril, but with stylistic flourishes that show how the mind fills in with imagination what logic can’t account for, one can see what they do and it doesn’t hurt that the film has a radiant pair of leads in Sarr and Fall, who insist you follow them as readily as they chase their destiny.

Which isn’t to say that Garrone overlooks how treacherous the trek actually is when “Io Capitano” when for stealthily as it moves around with a steadicam, the director surfaces the less obvious threats of jurisdictional vagaries that prove more dangerous to the teens than whatever surprises await navigating vast parcels of uncharted territory on land and sea. Details such as how the Libyan mafia fills in the farthest reaches where military and police aren’t around to cover, eager to shake down the desperate who are too scared to know the difference between authorities, seems like an insight yielded from Garrone and co-writers’ Massimo Gaudioso and Massimo Ceccherini’s work with real refugees, as does when calls for help to the Coast Guard between Malta and Italy fall on deaf ears when neither want to take responsibility for anyone they don’t feel an obligation towards. 

A sequence where Seydou is compelled to work at a desert compound after essentially being sold into slavery, promised along with another refugee a paid trip to Tripoli if his work on a fence and a fountain is done to its owner’s liking, becomes particularly fascinating when considering why such a place needs walls in the first place, at least tens if not hundreds of miles away from civilization, and while border crossings aren’t noted when they’re so abstract in “Io Capitano,” the psychological impact of those boundaries are deeply felt. Still, the film is less focused on closures than opening minds and by being bold, it takes after its central characters in surprising with how far it can go.

“Io Capitano” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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