Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Io Capitano (2023) dir. Matteo Garrone

Reverse-shot Immigrant Song

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A lot of immigrant stories rely on a material end-goal to make the struggle worthwhile. Yes, families have suffered physical adversities, wary governmental policing, and overt racism to make it here into America, but good news: freedom! Doesn’t the First Amendment taste good? Can you feel the land of opportunity rumble underneath your feet? Wasn’t it worth it?

Instead of all of that, Matteo Garrone describes his latest film, Io Capitano, as a “reverse shot.” The journey begins at the departure of a well-intended home and ends (if “ends” is the appropriate conclusion to the story) at a place more ambiguous and uncertain of satisfaction. The pilgrimage is led by the dazzling debut performance of Seydou Starr, who plays a 16-year-old Senegalese boy of the same name. Io Capitano opens in his home in coastal Dakar, filled with the warmth of kids chittering in different congregations and jovial peers to kick back with and run a freestyle by. There is no hint of boredom or dissatisfaction; the community gathers later that night for a dance, inducing a swell of happiness from both dancer and viewer. So we find ourselves in the same surprised reaction as his mom when Seydou asks to leave for Europe to pursue a better opportunity. Reasonably, his mother reacts with anger, exclaiming that the people who have left are now bodies strewn across the Sahara desert or in the bottom of the Mediterranean sea.

Still, it would be far from the 16-year-old with dreams in his head to not disobey, which incurs Seydou and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) to surreptitiously leave their families in the middle of the night. As predicted, they will hit the scorching sands of the Sahara and the dubious currents of the sea, but the battles in between — bribery, kidnapping, lying through your teeth about occupational history — were probably not the easiest thing that teenage boys could have thought or prepared for.

The lens of an Italian director and co-writer this story is wont for suspicion, but the endeavors in tailoring this story to the African immigrant experience is admirable. Seydou and Moussa were both cast as non-professional actors, who had coincidentally never left Senegal prior to shooting. Some parts of their performances are real responses to a world outside of their home, which makes for an interesting argument on some of the events they had to endure (presuming that prison torture was off the table). Even if the majority of the performance happened to be reactionary, Seydou especially gives a hard-earned dedication of innocence that is shaken but not broken, rivaling most young-adult characters that are given lesser hardship.

It’s the genre balance that allows Garrone’s directional experiences come to play. He returns to his drug-lord 2008’s Gomorrah roots for some of adult themes, but he makes do with maintaining a certain innocence, something that feels rightful for a teenager who, at the end of all of this, is still a teenager. The ideal preservation of morality might have been something that attracted Garrone to 2019’s Pinocchio, and sometimes Seydou’s hardships is given respite through fantastical elements that occur a couple of times throughout the film. Some might say that it destroys the realism, but I found it to be a wonderful part of an enduring hope that should be allotted for younger characters.

In the end, Seydou has a subtle transformation, which is surprising given the amount of shit he goes through. But the core of his person — unafraid of doing the right thing, shy from the white lies and noncommittal crimes — still shines through, even in his most triumphant moment in the last scene. In its combination of performance and unparalleled settings shown in cinema, Io Capitano sure is something special.

Io Capitano
2023
dir. Matteo Garrone
121 min.

Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema

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