You are currently viewing “Io Capitano” reviewed

“Io Capitano” reviewed

“Io Capitano” plays like it was made for the Best International Feature Oscar race. It’s a type of film — usually middle-of-the-road, always well-intentioned — that’s designed to tug on the heartstrings of Oscar voters, putting a prestige gloss onto “important” stories, securing its country’s all-important ballot slot in the process. As craven as this process can be, it’s difficult to criticize a movie too harshly because of it, particularly when, as with “Io Capitano,” a story actually is important, and does need to be told. But Italy’s official selection for the 96th Academy Awards is frustratingly just good enough, and no better.

Cannes darling Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”) turns his best intentions towards following two Senegalese immigrants on the dangerous trip across Africa and into Italy. Cousins Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) are innocents who are in over their heads from the moment they leave their home in Dakar, falling victim to both human corruption and the indifferent cruelty of nature. Their stated intention in emigrating is to help out their families by earning money in Europe, but there’s an element of headstrong youth as well — Seydou’s mom wants him to stay in Senegal, fearing for his safety if he leaves. She’d rather have her son than the money, she says. He doesn’t listen.

So many bad things happen to Seydou and Moussa — a sequence set in a North African prison is especially upsetting, but the whole journey is merciless — that any moment of respite is also full of tension, as the viewer waits for more bad things to happen. And usually, they do — until late in the film, when Garrone and his co-writers play with these expectations during a treacherous final journey across the Mediterranean that defies the paint-by-numbers hardship of previous scenes. But even here, tragedy lurks just offscreen.

The most common pitfall of social dramas like this one is so-called “misery porn,” where a film wallows in the suffering of its characters, usually characters of color, for the edification of a presumed white audience. “Io Capitano” flirts with this at times with long close-ups of Seydou, Moussa, and their fellow migrants’ faces in extreme distress. The sheer volume of these shots becomes numbing after a while. But there is more to the story.

Along with all the fear and suffering, “Io Capitano” also flirts with magical realism in a way that recalls another drama documenting the migrant experience, Gregory Nava’s luminous “El Norte” (1983). Garrone’s film doesn’t incorporate the style as artfully as Nava’s, however. And its self-consciously artistic cinematography has a National Geographic type of sheen to it, distancing the film from its protagonists rather than elevating their trek to epic proportions.

And that gets tricky, because the primary purpose of a film like “Io Capitano” is to humanize its characters in service of telling stories that are too rarely told in the media. Putting names and faces to immigration statistics is important, and “Io Capitano” does that. It’s also an Italian film whose dialogue is mostly in Wolof and French, reflecting the diversity of modern Europe. The nagging, inconvenient fly in the ointment is this: Who was this really made for — African immigrants in need of advocacy, or bureaucrats in search of Oscar glory? The answer seems to be a little of both.