Immigrant stories manifest across multiple Oscar submissions this year. There’s Sweden’s Opponent and Australia’s Shayda, with their focus on Iranian expats trying to rebuild in another nation, as well as a vital narrative thread in Germany’s Teachers’ Lounge. The films from Italy and Belgium turn their gazes to Sub-Saharan Africa, though their perspectives are inverted. Io Capitano considers an odyssey from Senegal to the Italian shore, while Omen starts with a Congolese immigrant looking back to his origins. One is a journey in search of a new life, the other a reflection on an old life left behind.
Each proposes a cinema hinged on the tension of modern realism and folkloric tradition, dictating wild tonal swerves and keeping in line with many of the most interesting African films in recent memory…
IO CAPITANO, Matteo Garrone
Despite representing Italy at the Oscars, Io Capitano never settles on the country as more than an abstraction. All of Europe is a mirage, tantalizing and stubbornly out of reach for the characters in Matteo Garrone’s latest. In the end, when a shoreline finally peeks over the horizon line, the camera refuses to set foot on Italian soil – the credits roll at the instant of ambiguous triumph. That’s because this film isn’t about that European dream or even the struggle of African immigrants in their new, politically hostile home. Instead, it concerns the voyage across the continent, the desert, and the Mediterranean Sea, like Homer’s Odyssey reinvented for a new geography.
Far away from its pyrrhic promised land, Io Capitano starts in Senegal, where two teenage boys plan to leave their home. Seydou is our Odysseus, and cousin Moussa is his co-conspirator, earning money secretly to avoid suspicion from a disapproving family. These early passages in Dakar, for all they portray the toil of underpaid labor and impoverished people, are also full of joy. The camera will never again feel as alive as it does here, loose and giddy, dancing with the characters as DP Paolo Carnera captures rich color everywhere he looks. Andrea Farri’s music does much the same. To understand this warmth is to interiorize the sacrifice of leaving, that sting no youthful naivete can smother.
From then on, there’ll be little else than pain in wait for the boys, each stop on their path another swindle and exploitation. Corruption is everywhere, networks of crime sustained by border policies that make immigration near impossible through legal means. They walk through harsh landscapes, cloister in the shadows with individuals traveling the same, and cross the desert to Libya. A separation comes and violence explodes across the screen, such great horrors that Garrone seems to step away from reality so that a fairy tale dream can provide relief. But this panacea is often ineffective and feels wrong. Better swallow the bitter pill than choke on false hope.
These mechanisms also allow the director to explore folkloric imagery of the African diaspora, picturing genies and angels with ostrich-feathered wings, an onslaught of fantasy that vanishes as soon as it appears. In this, social realism is made subaltern to the need for adventure and, in some ways, entertainment. The flourishes try to soother rather than complicate. They muddy the director’s stated wish to show different perspectives on the migration issue and humanize those the media robs of personhood. While technically impressive and engaging throughout, Io Capitano leaves the impression of a limited directorial vision. That Venice Best Director win is dubious, to say the least.
However, Seydou Sarr proves a great winner for the festival’s Marcello Mastroianni Award. When the camera loses sight of its modern Odysseus as more than a symbol, the actor’s performance still feels tapped into the boy’s specificities, the realities of his plight, perseverance, his yearning. Moustapha Fall is another standout as Moussa, insinuating humor into the film before crumbling under the strain of his fate. Isaaka Sawadogo is a source of melancholic comfort, eyes heavy with weariness, and Ndeye Khady Sy makes a strong impression as Seydou’s mother. Her presence persists, even after her son and his film are worlds away.
OMEN, Baloji Tshiani
Surreal is an overused term in film circles. There are those who call anything remotely beyond the ordinary surreal, abusing the word until it loses meaning. And yet, some works earn the attribute. Such is the case of Baloji Tsihani’s feature debut, Omen, where reality and an oneiric deviation from it not only coexist but collapse into each other. It’s the story of Koffi, an immigrant who returns to Congo with his pregnant wife to announce the news to judging family and pay a dowry as tradition requires. However, upon his arrival, one realizes the disconnection between relatives runs deeper than common estrangement.
Accused of being an evil sorcerer, he’d been disowned, making a reappearance a fraught affair. However, far from staying fixed on Koffi’s anguish, Omen soon expands its vision to include others whom society marginalized for one reason or another. Paco is an adolescent ruffian, part of a gang whose every member dons pink dresses and plastic tiaras in honor of a fallen sister. Tshala is the only family member who still talks to brother Koffi, an independent woman in an open relationship who’s about to leave for South Africa, where she hopes to live a less restrictive existence. Finally, Mama Mujila is the ostracized man’s mother, harsh but never beyond the camera’s empathy.
Crucially, the father to whom Koffi plans to pay never materializes, dying off-screen to onset the picture’s final act. Not that there are straightforward acts in this surreal Omen, whose movement is fluid like the river current, winding down a chaotic path, waves of poetry crashing at the screen shore. Visions that could be dreams or superstition superimpose into the material action, with traumas of yore appearing as ritual and fairy tale. At a certain point, we see how Paco lost his sibling as an African twist on Hansel & Gretel, complete with a witch whose face is a void of nothingness. On other occasions, Mama Mujila’s pain is pink milk squeezed from her breast, a curse of pain upon her children.
In what’s perhaps the film’s most unnerving presentation, the patriarch’s funeral is envisioned as a theater of grief. Women in colorful garb gather around, divesting their wigs and day-to-day wear for black robes and lace shrouds. They gather around Mujila in performative wailing until tears spill from their eyes. The water drips and drips, puddles forming across the floor until the dark room is overwhelmed, impossibly flooded. The music roars here and in other places, including once when a street vendor sings an opera that follows Mujila as she walks riverside, spying sunbathing mermaids dressed in what looks like waterlogged trash. The costumes designed by Baloji and Elke Hoste are themselves a dream and glorious nightmare.
At 90 minutes, Omen runs through these disparate ideas with little time to reflect on their meaning. Raw emotion jumps out, rarefied and shocking, understandable even when the narrative lines are hard to follow. It’s a mystic experience and a profoundly personal creation, born from the complicated grief of losing his estranged Belgian father, with whom Baloji lived for a while after losing contact with his Congolese mother. More known for his musical projects – you can find him on the soundtrack for Magic Mike’s Last Dance – his prowess as a filmmaker is undeniable and won him a prize at Cannes. Watching the surreal Omen, you can’t help but be in awe of the artist’s boundless multimedia creativity.