‘Io Capitano’: Matteo Garrone’s Captivating Immigration Story Is About the Journey, Not the Destination

In what director and co-writer Matteo Garrone refers to as a reverse immigrant journey, “Io Capitano” tells the story of a 16-year-old Senegalese boy, Seydou (Seydou Sarr), who leaves behind almost everything he knows for a chance at a new life in Italy. He is joined by his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall), and nothing can prepare the two young men for the trek they are to make.

Italy’s “Io Capitano,” which is nominated for best international feature at the upcoming Academy Awards, was inspired by the stories from real-life migrants that were told to Garrone and his team. The filmmaker set out to make a modern odyssey, with Seydou at the center of a hero’s journey. When we first meet him, he is a normal teen who likes to listen to music, works a part-time job, goes to school, and spends time with his family. Although Seydou and his mother and sisters live in poverty in Dakar, there is a lot of love and joy in their household. With big dreams of making it in the music business, Seydou and Moussa save up money to emigrate to Italy. While they dream of becoming “so famous that white people ask for their autographs,” tenderhearted Seydou is primarily motivated by the idea of being able to send back enough money to support his family.

Seydou keeps his construction job a secret from his mother, telling her he is playing soccer instead. When he does broach the subject of emigrating to her, she worries about his safety, and it eventually becomes apparent that her fears are well-founded, not just ordinary motherly worries. Another local man warns Seydou and Moussa about the dangers of such a journey, but like most young people seeking adventure, they refuse to heed the warnings and set off. 

Getting stopped for having fake passports and an arduous journey through the Sahara are just a start of the young men’s ordeals. They are eventually separated, and Seydou finds himself in a Libyan prison and eventually getting sold into slavery. As grim as all this sound, Garrone is able to expertly balance out the light with the dark, the good with the evil. Seydou finds protectors along the way that are able to restore his and the viewer’s faith in humanity in the darkest moments. The story culminates in his undertaking a dangerous mission that not only puts his life at risk, but also a boatload of other Africans seeking a new life in Italy.

Garrone succeeds here in telling an authentic story rooted in reality that does justice to the migrants whom he interviewed; it is not exploitative, nor is it trauma porn. He breaks up the more harrowing parts of Seydou’s journey with scenes of magical realism that convey his innermost thoughts and feelings. First, after failing to save the life of a woman in the desert who passes out from sheer exhaustion, he imagines her flying. Later, when he is in prison, he sends a spirit guide to visit his mother.

“It was very important to show from inside to the audience the wounds of his soul,” Garonne revealed to Entertainment Voice. “The fact that he couldn’t save the life of this woman in the desert, for instance, and the fact that he almost dies [leads him to] want to be forgiven by his mother. This element helps the audience to understand what he is feeling on the inside.”

Sarr and Fall give outstanding performances, which are made all the more impressive by the fact they had very little acting experience going into filming. This is in part due to Garrone’s non-traditional approach to filming. Not only did he shoot the scenes in chronological order, but he also chose not to give his two leads the full screenplay in advance, instead allowing them to discover what happens scene by scene, bringing more authenticity to the film and the characters.

“Shooting chronologically helps them live the journey,” said Garrone. “And, also, for us who wrote the script, it is an opportunity to have a dialogue with them to see if what we wrote goes In the right direction, or if they feel inside that there is something wrong. That was very important.”

Io Capitano” release Feb. 23 in select theaters.