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Io Capitano Film Review: Distressing Reality

A man holds the hand of a woman in a green dress who's flying in the desert in the 2024 film Io Capitano

Seydou Sarr is sensational in Io Capitano, Matteo Garrone’s overly refined but ultimately harrowing journey of migration.

The chemistry between actors Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, who play cousins Seydou and Moussa respectively in Io Capitano, is so good that you’d be forgiven for thinking the relation extends off screen. Their performances, both collectively and individually, are the main reason why Matteo Garrone’s (Gomorrah, Dogman) latest is so propulsive and compelling. In general, Io Capitano is a vast improvement on Garrone’s previous film Pinocchio (2019) and certainly on par with Dogman (2018), although the gritty aesthetics of the latter surprisingly don’t always extend into Io Capitano’s tough plot. Most notably, there is perhaps nothing new here to reinvent the migration-based drama, but stories like this remain a vital part of the cinematic landscape.

Sixteen-year-olds Seydou and Moussa dream of leaving the poverty of their lives in Dakar for the brighter prospect of Italy, working in secret to raise money for the journey. Garrone gives the right amount of time to this setup, crafting the pair’s relationship robustly, as well as those of Seydou and his family. At this point, the tone of Io Capitano, despite the characters’ harsh living conditions, is light, perfectly capturing these loving relationships and, more importantly, the hope that Seydou and Moussa feel. Failure is barely a thought for them; Sicily becomes a sun-kissed, dreamy paradise. As expected and true to such a journey, Io Capitano is far from a smooth modern odyssey.

Seydou and Moussa’s trek takes them from, amongst many places, the Saharan desert of Niger to the makeshift Senegalese communes of Tripoli. Io Capitano’s story is unrelentingly harsh, which is necessary to convey the extremes that people like Seydou and Moussa suffer through everyday. Arrest, torture, extortion, and a terrifying ocean ordeal are just some of the terrors immigrants all over the world face. Because of this relevance, Io Capitano’s story is deeply stirring.

The main area where Garrone’s film falters is in its cleancut aesthetic, with an execution that is almost too refined. Io Capitano’s smooth studio visuals feel at odds with the grit and suffering that we are witnessing. Garrone’s filmmaking is structured and tidy, but it doesn’t always align with the story. Indeed, certain moments feel manufactured; we know exactly when to feel fear or happiness. Most notably, for all the film’s danger, there is little volatility or bravery to the filmmaking.

A group of people walk in the desert one in front of the other in the 2024 film Io Capitano
Io Capitano (Altitude Films)

The most obvious reason for what makes Io Capitano so compelling and powerful is newcomer Sarr. In almost every scene, he keeps the film ticking, edging the line perfectly between adolescence and adulthood that his character straddles and crosses constantly. At some points, Seydou is a frightened, shaking child without his mother; at others, he is a sturdy adult who supports countless people around him. His physical journey becomes to define and shape him as a person, and Sarr hits this complex, undulating transition perfectly. In a supporting but no less important role, Fall is terrific as Moussa. He is a warm screen presence; it is telling that one of the most memorable parts of this character is when Moussa boops Seydou on the nose and leans against him, righting his cousin’s fear instantly.

Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) felt like a revolutionary film for how it presented the migration experience; not only did it frame it from the female perspective, but the ghost story tangents and the way it portrayed the Atlantic ocean as an incomprehensibly vast graveyard gave a fresh angle to subjects many films have tackled before. In contrast, Io Capitano feels underwhelmingly straightforward in its approach, whilst its fleeting scenes of fantasy feel unassured and unnecessary. Nevertheless, Io Capitano is a powerful rallying cry to nations around the world to help people like Seydou and Moussa, and for that reason, it remains a must-see.

Io Capitano is nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards and will be released in UK cinemas on April 5, 2024. The movie is now available to watch in US theaters. Read our predictions for the 2024 Oscars and download our Oscars 2024 printable ballot sheet to make your guesses!

Io Capitano: Trailer (Altitude Films)
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