Io Capitano, meaning I captain, is that harrowing motivating migrants’ story that Raj Kumar Hirani’s Dunki could not be. It has just been selected as the Italian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards, one of the fifteen shortlisted films.
I won’t be the least surprised if this evocative film makes it to the top spot in the international category. Its harvest of pain suffering and resilience leads us into the darkest recesses of travel trauma from where we emerge wondering if suffering is the only constant for the underprivileged sections of society in any part of the world.
The film starts with Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) in Dakar, Senegal, dreaming of migrating to Europe for a better life. The two boys have been secretly saving up for their journey.
The way director Matteo Garrone captures the percolating excitement of the two cousins as they plan their life in a more productive environment, would resonate with every potential migrant, illegal or not.
This is a story so throbbing with authenticity and so difficult to watch in parts that we may perhaps come away more battered and wounded from the experience than we normally allow cinema to.
Nothing prepares Seydou and Moussa, or the audience, for the horrors that waits for them ahead, though they were warned by Seydou’s wise mother (Khady Sy). There is this other good Samaritan in transit who warns the cousins to keep their money in their rectum, a suggestion that is met with much giggling by our two heroes.
Soon the laughs are obliterated by the harsh reality of the journey. The unholy pilgrimage (shot with a piercing vividness by Italian cinematographer Paolo Carnera that cannot be appreciated on the small screen) has passages of unbearable suffering and moments of sublime poetry. While there is wretchedness and suffering everywhere—and at some point Seydou is separated from Moussa–there is also much hope and compassion to hold on.
And although I liked how the near-dead Seydou is taken custody by a father-like protector who clings to the boy and makes sure he doesn’t die; I found such concessions to sentimentality as weakening spots in a brutally direct narrative.
There is so much to learn from Io Capitano. So much to take home, including passages of surrealism where characters are seen flying, a way out from the grim reality that assails their existence. My favourite passage in this wonderfully cathartic travel film is when Seydou refuses to leave a dying woman (Beatrice Gnonko) in the Sahara Desert. Seydou’s dilemma at this point—to leave or not to leave—is a befitting metaphor for what the film stands for: is it better to plunge into the darkness of the unknown than to stay put in the stagnancy of the known?