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‘Io Capitano’ Review: A Migration Odyssey

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The Italian director Matteo Garrone has a talent for cruelty. There’s always been more to Garrone’s movies than unkindness, but he has a striking facility for crystallizing human baseness in images that are both specific and laden with surplus meaning. When I think of “Gomorrah,” his 2008 drama about a Neapolitan criminal syndicate, I immediately re-see the shot of two dead teenagers in the bucket of a bulldozer — a grotesque Pietà.

Two very different adolescents figure in “Io Capitano,” which tracks a pair of Senegalese cousins as they struggle to make their way from their home in Dakar to Europe. Seydou (a tremendous Seydou Sarr) lives with his widowed mother and younger siblings in a cramped house, but spends much of his time with Moussa (Moustapha Fall), his friend and cousin. Both boys want to live in Europe, where Seydou dreams of finding stardom as a musician. So, when they’re not at home or school, they work at building sites hauling heavy loads to save for their trip. They have a wad of cash when the story begins; it won’t be nearly enough.

Garrone efficiently fills in Seydou’s everyday life, its routines and textures, its possibilities and limitations, with attentive camerawork, his customary eye for pungent detail and relaxed, measured rhythms. Seydou and Moussa’s fondness for each other and mutual dependence are evident in their gazes and gestures, and in the unforced intimacy of how they walk and talk together. They’re sweet, pleasant, optimistic and nice to be around; they’re also teenagers. When Seydou tells his mother that he plans to go abroad, she chastises him — worry radiates off her like a fever — and he quickly backs off. Soon after, though, he and Moussa leave.

Their journey is divided into distinct sections that take the teenagers deep into the Sahara, involves a barbaric interlude in Libya and eventually brings them to the edge of the Mediterranean. It’s an often punishing trip, one punctuated with, and increasingly defined by, violence that can be near-phantasmagoric in its depravity. Garrone, who wrote the script with several of his regular collaborators, has drawn from accounts by migrants who have made analogous journeys. It took one of the movie’s advisers, an Ivorian man named Mamadou Kouassi, three terrible years to reach Europe, where he works in Italy advising migrants. (Similar crossings are detailed in reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch.)

By the time Seydou and Moussa are on a bus out of Dakar, they have heard about the dangers of their enterprise. But they’re excited by the idea of adventure and by the prospect of fame, their naïveté stoked by the videos they watch on a cellphone. “White people,” Moussa teases Seydou, “will be asking you for autographs.” Seydou also wants to help his family (his mother has a small market stall), though Garrone doesn’t emphasize the family’s poverty. Seydou and Moussa are poor, certainly by the standards of the Westerners who presumably constitute this movie’s target audience. Yet they’re not abject, downtrodden; rather, they are kids, open to the world and eager to chart their own course.

This gives Seydou and Moussa’s youthful desires a universal aspect, of course, which initially frames their undertaking as a classic adventure rather than as a docudrama lifted from the news. Whatever the powerful political forces and the socioeconomic conditions that have helped to shape the characters’ lives, the boys themselves approach their journey as an ambitious undertaking, with visceral giddiness not desperation. Their innocence is palpable. It also creates an intense sense of apprehension, at least for viewers aware of the agonies experienced by refugees, migrants and asylum seekers worldwide. I think that Garrone trusts that his audience has some awareness of those agonies, and perhaps even a role in them.

Soon enough, Seydou and Moussa have crossed borders and are on the first arduous leg of their journey. After buying counterfeit passports (they run out of cash quickly), they end up crowded onto an open-bed truck driven by heavily armed smugglers and overflowing with migrants — men, women, children — from different countries.

In these scenes and elsewhere, Garrone recurrently shifts between close-ups and extreme long shots, which alternately brings you within breathing, at times, panting distance of the teenagers, and underscores just how small and vulnerable they are. When one migrant falls off the truck, the drivers just keep going. The horror that washes over the boys’ stunned faces is visceral, and it is haunting.

“Io Capitano” can be rightfully difficult to watch, and an extended sequence set in a Libyan hellhole where migrants are tortured and sold is flat-out grim. Garrone doesn’t spare you much, but if the movie never turns into an exercise in art-house sadism, it’s because his focus remains unwaveringly fixed on his characters who, from the start, are fully rounded people, not props, symbols or object lessons. Garrone invites you into a story and demands your attention with visual clarity and narrative urgency. Yet his great strength here is the tenderness of his touch, which works as a kind of force field that keeps your own despair at bay and your sympathies on his complicated, transparent, achingly hopeful characters.

Io Capitano
Not rated. In Wolof and French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.

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