Io, Capitano is Italy’s contender for the Best International Feature Oscar

3.5 out of 5 stars

Near the mid-point a journey from Senegal to Italy, a teenage boy named Seydou is kidnapped and ransomed by Libyan gangsters. Beaten and tortured, his hallucinations spill into the film. The shaman he encountered before his journey appears in a dream, offering to send a message to his mother. In the crowded cell, the young man screams out for her, “Maman, Maman!” Amidst the careless violence we’ve seen up to this point, the casual disregard for dignity and life, the men in the cell comfort Seydou. Martin (Issaka Sawadogo), an older man, cradles him in his arms. It’s a moment of tremendous tenderness, shedding light on the darkness. 

Io, Capitano is Italy’s official submission for the Best International Film at the Oscars and Matteo Garrone’s latest directorial effort. Garrone, best known abroad for his first film, Gomorrah, injects a fantastic atmosphere into the tale of a young man’s journey to achieve his dreams. It’s a movie that captures the space between law and disorder, where criminal activity flourishes. As we watch as the innocent Seydou, who dreams of helping his family and achieving his musical dreams, descend into hell, we see the complex system of oppression that spreads in a world ruled by fear and greed. 

For the most part, the film showcases a rather “naturalistic” view of Seydou’s journey. It’s a film that takes its time and shows how each step of the way isn’t exactly what it seems. The writing strikes a careful balance as it shows Seydou as a young man who doesn’t have an especially hard life but whose naivety guides him along the path of the desperate, along with his cousin Moussa. The film never abandons classical forms as it aestheticizes Seydou’s journey rather than merely documents.

Though the trailer and some reviews make note of the film’s fantastical elements, and they are certainly present, they are brief and sparse. They feel like a filmic gift on the part of the filmmaker, a way of allowing the inner world’s imagination and traditions to become integrated into the fabric of the storytelling. While some films allow trauma and pain in fantasy to overwhelm the substance of a message, here, it only enhances it. It allows for threads of belief to change perspectives and offer new ideas. It forces the audience to imagine what happens to the souls lost on this journey, lost to their families and loved ones, the intimate connection to their ancestor’s lands and beliefs potentially severed forever.

While mostly successful, Io, Capitano does falter in some ways. As mentioned earlier, the very conventional aesthetic form ends up hampering a sense of intimacy, rendering the journey more fictional than not. This connects with the film’s intense subjectivity, which forces events through the eyes of Seydou. While mostly effectice, this does lead (particularly in the final act) to some clumsy storytelling as Seydou stumbles upon people and incidents that are more narratively convenient than especially motivated. 

Yet, it’s difficult to ignore the film’s overall power. In the film’s final part, Seydou must take charge of a boat. Once again, it’s a narrative convenience, but as we watch this child manoeuvre a boat, it’s difficult not to imagine how he’s been forced to take charge of his life and the lives of others so suddenly and so brutally. It’s a moment that paradoxically is hopeful and tragic, as the boat feels like a metaphor for our world — how young men like Seydou will inherit the earth, and instead of uplifting them, we spit on them. It’s a film that captures his resilience, but above all, how his grace allows him to survive without compromising his core beliefs. The film’s subtext seems well aware that this is a narrative conceit, and it is not just luck that casts a happy eye on Seydou’s fortune but the power of the pen. 

Io, Capitano avoids many of the pitfalls of tragedy-porn but also fails to transcend them fully. It’s a film that aims to humanize, but that only fully works if you’re building on a perceived lack of humanity in the first place (if not out of malice, out of a lack of care). The film, a Senegalese story made by an Italian, is a European film for a European audience. It’s well made but hampered by convention and an outsider’s gaze. ■

Io Capitano (directed by Matteo Garrone)

Io, Capitano (aka Me Captain, with English subtitles) opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 16.

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