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Io Capitano ★★★1/2 

Updated: Mar 22

Availability: Showing in theaters nationally. No streaming at this time; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.

Out of Africa

The 3,000 mile Odyssey (and it is that) of two Senegalese teenagers, who make their way from Dakar by bus and car and foot across several African countries to Tripoli and then onto the Mediterranean, is one of the more harrowing viewing experiences you’ll have in a theater. The excruciating travails of these boys—who face robbers, prison, rapacious middle men, torture, sadism, a death-defying march across the Sahara, and for one of them, the forced captaincy of an ancient wooden boat—will make it hard at times to keep your eyes on the screen. And yet, as in a fable, or Hollywood, there is always a glimmer of hope.

Above, Paolo Carnera's stunning cinematography follows the migrants on their desert trek. Seydou (Seydou Sarr) in the middle, and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) in front of him. Accentuating the cousins, this still represents the film's focus on the two boys.

The story of this Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Feature Film is told from the boys’ perspective and especially the more cautious of the two, Seydou (Seydou Sarr), who is coaxed into leaving home, family, and community by his more adventurous cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall). They aren’t political refugees—no gangs threaten them and, unlike the children in 1983’s “El Norte,” their parents haven’t been killed. Although Seydou and Moussa are poor, they are not true economic refugees. They live closely with their siblings and mothers in small shacks, go to school, play soccer, find odd jobs; they don’t lack basic human needs. An energetic, colorful community of music, dance, and “Mum,” with a dash of Shamanic mysticism, envelops them. But they are driven by the dream, the dream of a better life in, vaguely, Europe, of improving the circumstances of their mothers and sisters, of “whites asking for your autograph.”


They are driven by the dream, the dream of a better life in, vaguely, Europe, of “whites asking for your autograph.”


Noted Italian director Matteo Garrone (who won Cannes jury prizes for both “Gomorrah” 2008 and “Reality” 2012) has chosen to focus on these naïve youngsters—Seydou is 16—rather than the hardened adults who make the trip after leading lives of desperation in their native countries. It would seem easy to elicit sympathy for these malleable innocents in what appears to be a hard-to-believe tale. Garrone drew his inspiration from listening to a young man tell his immigration story at a Sicilian center that assists minors who land on those shores. The director (with several Italian co-writers and the assistance of our friend Virginia Jewiss in adapting the screenplay into English) pieced together a collage of experiences of migrants, 7 of whom are listed as “collaborating writers.” The film was shot mostly in Senegal and Morocco, in 13 weeks.

On one of the many stages of their Odyssey, the boys (Seydou center, Moussa to his left) hang on in the back of a truck, a perilous stretch of their journey.


The script relies on traditional genres.


The script relies on traditional genres. It’s a coming-of-age film (will Seydou become a man?); a buddy film (Seydou and Moussa, one becoming the savior of the other in a transference of character traits); a fairy-tale arc that starts happily, has a gruesome middle (in the Grimms’ version, the witch wants to eat Hansel), and an optimistic if somewhat enigmatic end; a quest film (the hero must pass multiple tests); a story of humanity in the face of evil (a mason [Issaka Sawadogo] takes Seydou under his wing as the son he has lost, the Senegalese community in Tripoli provides him a safety net). And throw in a bit of magical realism. One might criticize Garrone for pulling out all these tropes, but he is so good at it that the critique seems inapt, possibly irrelevant.

In a bit of magical realism, Seydou hallucinates that he has saved an older migrant.


Director Garrone's filmic techniques are in service to empathy.


This Italian director never has his characters set foot on Italian shores. It’s not about what happens to them as immigrants in a European country, it’s about what they went through to try to get there, what Garrone wants us to see when we look at immigrants in our countries. The laser focus is on the boys—with indelible performances by nonprofessional actors, especially Seydou Sarr. It’s a simple, straightforward strategy, one that Garrone has harnessed to great effectiveness, and it’s all in service to empathy, a quality lacking not just in Europe, but also in the US, as desperate human beings cross its southern border.

Above, Seydou, center, improbably captaining the boat crammed with migrants.

The terrors of the prison, the shock and depression of utter powerlessness, the physical agony and deep anxiety of the desert trek, the hysteria of fearful passengers on today’s version of the Middle Passage—all are vividly realized. So, too, is Seydou’s joy, mixed with a measure of bravado and a hint of trepidation—a helicopter circles overhead, its ominous noise the only communication, the Sicilian shore tantalizingly close—as he shouts “io capitano!” (I, the captain!). Two of the few Italian words, and the last two words of the film.

Right, Seydou finds himself alone,

in an illegal prison.


Date: 2023 (theatrical release in France 2023, other nations 2024)

Director: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo

Countries: Italy, Belgium, France

Languages: Wolof, French, Arabic, English, Italian, subtitled in English

Runtime: 121 minutes

Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film

Other Awards: 19 wins and 22 nominations (10 wins at the Venice Film Festival including Garrone for Best Director [the Silver Lion] and Sarr for Best Young Actor)

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