Following Agnieszka Holland’s land-bound refugee tale Green Border earlier this week, Matteo Garrone’s new film Io Capitano departs geographically further south and takes its characters on an epic journey which involves land and sea. But its direction and terrain are not the only difference here.
Whereas Holland’s Green Border is a specific response to the refugee crisis – these people are fleeing war and torture, fleeing for their lives – Garrone’s protagonists Seydou (Seydou Starr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) are economic migrants, inspired to leave their home in Dakar, Senegal to seek their fortunes in Europe. Garrone is careful to show that the teenagers are not fleeing abuse, or even poverty. They live full lives; they play drums and football. They have jobs which gives them sufficient funds for them to save up enough money to finance their trip. Seydou lives with his widowed mother and annoying sisters.
Some might see this as a weakness in Garrone’s latest, as it has become a right-wing talking point that refugees are actually economic migrants. However, this writer feels it incumbent upon himself to introduce a note of autobiography. I am an economic migrant, who moved from a perfectly comfortable existence out of the urge for novelty and to see the wider world. I was in no way hampered and was in fact encouraged. I have never been labeled as a migrant (economic or otherwise) by anyone else but myself. I’m also white.
Before leaving Seydou insists that they visit a local shaman who hopefully will bless their project with the assent of their ancestors. It is a move which foreshadows Garrone’s own stylistic approach. As he follows the boys, their imaginations and dreams will go with them as well as the horrors and realism of what they encounter. On every step of the way they are drained of their money by scam artists promising them easy transit. First the bus ride only takes them so far. Then passports are faked only to be confiscated at the next checkpoint and a stark option is offered “$50 or prison.” The boys are easy prey to those wishing to exploit the desperate.
Seydou and Moussa are driven across the Sahara in jeeps which bounce across the dunes in a scene that feels almost thrilling until it becomes apparent that if any of the passengers hanging on should fall, they are dead. No one will turn around. Human life is becoming cheap. The beautiful sandscapes shot beautifully by Paolo Carnera and reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia – how can they not be – are punctuated by a trail of corpses. Seydou tries to maintain his humanity and even dreams of saving a woman’s life who floats above him, but worse is to come. Anyone who has read Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned will dread the arrival of the Libyan security forces who cart Seydou off to a hellish prison, run by the Libyan mafia.
There are moments when Garrone’s vision strays too close to the fable in its narrative even as its images portray a brutal reality. However, Io Capitano doesn’t lose its humanity either in some of the people who Seydou meets and Seydou’s own resilience in his own self-belief and in the loyalty and love he has for his friend Moussa. The final irony lies in the impossibility of any final triumph. The best happy ending will not be the kind of self-realisation so many (including this reviewer) have so thoughtlessly enjoyed, but more likely a return to the beginning poorer and more traumatised and with dreams so broken, no magic will put them back together.
The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty