Latest: Two African Migrants’ Fantastical, Harrowing Odyssey in “Io Capitano”

At one point in “Io Capitano,” a deeply moving drama about an odyssey through unknown lands, the Italian director Matteo Garrone undermines his own realism, to startlingly lyrical effect. Seydou (Seydou Sarr), a sixteen-year-old from Senegal, is one of several African migrants who have been walking for hours across a great stretch of the Sahara Desert, bound, they hope, for Italy. Some distance behind him, an older woman (Beatrice Gnonko) collapses from exhaustion, wailing, “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!” (“Help me! Help me!”) Seydou runs back to help, offering the woman water from his canteen and urging her to keep walking. But his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall), tells him to keep moving, and suggests there’s nothing more that Seydou can do. If they lose sight of their party up ahead, they’ll be abandoned to a similar fate.

Here’s where that lyrical flourish occurs. Seydou does leave the woman behind, but before long he sees her, alive and well, smiling happily, and making her way through the desert alongside him. She isn’t walking; she’s levitating several feet above the ground, her hand clasped in Seydou’s as he leads her along. It’s quite a vision, a desert mirage—enchanting, funny, and perched riskily on the border of kitsch. But it’s a beautiful vision, too, not just because of a harmonious juxtaposition of wafting green garments, golden sand, and deep blue sky but also because of what it reveals about Seydou. He’s determined to help others even when he’s badly in need of help himself.

The moment surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Garrone, now in his mid-fifties, made his reputation years ago as a purveyor of unsparing cinematic grit. He vaulted to international acclaim with “Gomorrah” (2008), a fearsome drama about the violence and destruction wrought by the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Its many admirers hailed it as, among other things, a stark corrective to the glamorizations of Mob life found in American gangster films and TV shows, from “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos.”

Since then, though, Garrone has drifted indecisively between realism and fantasy, with erratic results. He has twice dipped into the wellspring of the extravagantly unreal, first with “Tale of Tales” (2015), a lavish, unwieldy English-language fantasy drawn from the writings of the seventeenth-century author Giambattista Basile, and then, in 2019, with a live-action adaptation of “Pinocchio,” with Roberto Benigni as Geppetto. In between came a return to scuzzy, sombre realism with “Dogman” (2018). Trickiest of all to classify was his 2012 effort, an amusing if curiously defanged satire of the Italian “Big Brother” TV craze, shot through with ostentatiously vulgar notes of Felliniesque decadence. Its title? “Reality.”

Now we have “Io Capitano,” which is nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and which strikes me as Garrone’s finest, most trenchant and fully realized work since “Gomorrah.” It’s stirring not just as an intimate closeup of a migrant’s experience but as a reconciliation of dramatic and stylistic modes—a dexterous balancing act that speaks to a new ease and mastery in the director’s work.

There’s stealth in Garrone’s approach: for the most part, the story sticks to a low-key, rough-hewn verisimilitude. The film, which Garrone wrote with three others (Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso, and Andrea Tagliaferri), is mostly in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, and was shot on location, primarily in Senegal and Morocco. It features a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, chief among them Sarr, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Even from the start, however, when we encounter Seydou living in Dakar with his weary mother (Khady Sy) and rowdy younger siblings, there’s an unexpected shimmer of vibrancy. However bad things may get, and they will get very bad indeed, we sense that we will be held, even cradled, by a storyteller’s touch. The assurance is there in the exquisitely lit and richly hued images composed by the director of photography, Paolo Carnera, and also in the swift but faintly dreamlike dissolves that the editor Marco Spoletini employs as transitions between even the story’s most harrowing scenes. Those will come later; at the beginning, Seydou’s life in Dakar seems hard but bearable, even festive. An early scene of celebration finds him banging happily on the drums, his mother dancing ecstatically before a crowd.

But, as we soon learn, Seydou and Moussa have been planning to leave for some time. They dream of musical stardom, earning more money, making something of themselves. Not even the angry protests of Seydou’s mother, or a stranger’s ominous warnings of the dangers that lie ahead, can ultimately bar them from setting off on the long, arduous trek across the desert. Travelling by bus, in a desperately rickety truck, and on foot, they make their way through Mali and Niger to Libya, where their plan is to catch a boat that will carry them to Italy. The title (which means “I Captain”) hints at the momentous final leg of the journey.

Garrone tilts the story gradually toward inconvenience, discomfort, and deprivation, then sends it free-falling, with stomach-lurching intensity, into extremity and despair. Seydou and Moussa, who have been hoarding money for months, find their savings swiftly depleted as they pay for false Malian passports and bribe a border guard not to arrest them when the passports are spotted as fakes. But everything changes in the desert: suddenly, under the hot glare of the Saharan sun, the improbability that they will survive hits home, and the ensuing passages amount to a nearly unbroken survey of horrors. The cousins are threatened, menaced, and forcibly separated, and Seydou, his face battered and bloodied, lands in a Libyan prison, complete with a torture chamber. But, even here, Garrone keeps hope alive, introducing an older man (Issaka Sawagodo), who takes Seydou under his wing at his moment of gravest need.

This blessed deliverance may make you weep, and also hate yourself and Garrone a little for the weeping. It’s fair to ask if the filmmaker might be sentimentalizing, and thus trivializing, an experience that should exist beyond the reach of easy storytelling trickery. Those dissolves often seem to gloss over a not inconsiderable measure of intense suffering: backbreaking manual labor, beatings, possible torture. But we understand these reprieves, these cinematic breathers, as concessions to a classical narrative framework, and this has the effect of expanding rather than limiting our experience of Seydou’s struggles. We aren’t only witnessing a migrant’s ordeal; we’re also swept up in a hero’s journey.

Garrone, of course, is an Italian filmmaker telling a Senegalese migrant’s story, an incongruity—or, as I prefer to think of it, a welcome act of empathetic imagination—that he has made no attempt to hide in interviews: “I’m Italian, I’m white. This is not my world,” he told Variety last fall. “There was a risk of getting it wrong, or of seeming like I was exploiting it.” But, if “Io Capitano” sometimes evades, it never exploits. It keeps us close beside Seydou, and it discovers its most lasting impressions and deepest meanings in Sarr’s wondrous performance. An effortlessly commanding screen presence, Sarr articulates, through nimble physicality and extraordinary openness of spirit, so much of what defines Seydou: his peacemaking temperament, his refusal to tolerate other people’s suffering, his ability to take root and thrive in new soil. His final moments onscreen are marked by a tremendous release of emotion, and the end of Seydou’s journey reveals itself, in a burst of anxiety, relief, and hard-won joy, to be just the beginning. ♦

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