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Seeking Adventure, African Teens Find Transcendence in ‘Io Capitano’

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'Io Capitano' presents a sprawling landscape of both ruthless cruelty and unsolicited kindness. (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Seydou and Moussa, the easygoing cousins at the center of Italian director Matteo Garrone’s eye-opening drama Io Capitano, are not typical refugees. The teenagers aren’t compelled to leave their Senegal homes because of political unrest, violence or poverty. They aren’t starving. They don’t need to support their families, not just yet.

But they dream, naively, of writing and recording songs and becoming such big stars that “white people will ask for our autographs.” And that dream, they have convinced themselves, can only be attained in Europe.

Nominated for the Academy Award for International Feature Film, Io Capitano (opening Friday, Feb. 23 in San Francisco, and in outlying Bay Area cities throughout March) arrives with the stamp of a social-issue film. To be sure, most stories about people leaving their native land in search of better opportunities derive from an underlying problem or injustice.

A scene from ‘Io Capitano.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

But Seydou and Moussa’s arduous endeavor is one of choice, not desperation. And because the filmmakers opt not to show the worst brutalities that the young men and other refugees endure on their journey from Dakar through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Libya to the port of Tripoli, Io Capitano plays more like a high-stakes adventure story than a message movie. Ultimately, and most satisfyingly, Io Capitano reveals itself as a coming-of-age tale marked by a loss of innocence.

Put another way, I am pleased to report that Io Capitano is not a depressing slog through the sand and mud. The youth and strength of the protagonists, along with their implicit potential, infuses the film with optimism, regardless of their situation. While danger and misfortune hover all around — opportunistic fake-passport dealers, corrupt border guards, predatory human smugglers, the unforgiving Sahara Desert itself — we sense that Seydou (played by Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) will make it through their unanticipated ordeal.


Garrone (Gomorrah, Pinocchio) and his co-writers based the script on the real-life accounts of three Africans who traversed the continent to start anew in Europe. To avoid the sense that we’re getting Seydou and Moussa’s experience filtered through a Western lens, the camera sticks close to them except for occasional establishing shots (of the Sahara Desert, for example).

A scene from ‘Io Capitano.’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

When the guys are separated by thieving soldiers, the film stays focused on Seydou. From a narrative standpoint, the unknown status of the off-screen character generates uncertainty and tension. More importantly, Seydou’s vulnerability now that’s he’s on his own becomes more palpable and his plight more acute.

Days before, hallucinating in the desert, he had adopted a struggling stranger as a mother figure. At this dark juncture, he is literally saved by another refugee — who volunteers Seydou and himself for construction work, it turns out, on a wealthy Libyan’s remote compound — who becomes a father figure.

Io Capitano presents a sprawling landscape of both ruthless cruelty and unsolicited kindness. Surprisingly, and profoundly, the film spotlights the moral choice between survival and humanity. There is no blame or shame in the former, but to have empathy for those in worse straits, and to go even further and put their well-being on your shoulders, is a genuine feat.

Eventually, Io Capitano leaves dry land for Seydou’s final test, which he passes beyond his doubts and dreams. He has discovered what taking responsibility means, and not just for his own choices and his own life. Yes, truly, he is now the capitano of his fate. But in assuming responsibility for other people, he has become a mature member of society.

It is a transformational moment in Seydou’s life, and it is also the point where the film’s political message is clearest. Seydou is the kind of immigrant that any country should welcome.

‘Io Capitano’ opens Friday, Feb. 23 at the Metreon 16 and Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco; Friday, March 1 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa; Friday, March 8 at the Orinda Theater; and Friday, March 15 at the Jarvis Conservatory in Napa.

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