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Lord Sandwich reviews 'Io Capitano'

Crossing the Sahara: Actor Seydou Sarr plays Seydou (centre) | Image by: Greta De Lazzaris

Earl of Sandwich

Earl of Sandwich

4 min read

An Oscar-nominated tale of courage and folly, Matteo Garrone’s film about migration from across the desert of North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea is a stirring exploration of the best and worst of humanity

Migration is an elusive subject and at last we have been given a film which helps explain it. Politicians express fears about small boats and make up rules to deal with them. Film-makers can go further, showing what migration really means to those who are inside it. Based in Senegal, not one of the obvious countries of migration, Io Capitano is a lighter mixture of adventure, emotional excitement, courage, folly – and sheer inhumanity.

Italian director Matteo Garrone has made a spectacular film about migration across the desert hinterland of North Africa; it has already won acclaim at the Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for an Oscar. The film could be seen as a warning to potential migrants, but it is not intended as a form of propaganda. It is a stirring depiction of human failure, of a world in which evil men occupy positions of power and resort to the torture and murder even of innocents. 

“I don’t give answers, I tell the story,” said Garrone in an interview. This translates to his attention to background detail, careful construction of the plot, hiding none of the horrors of life from the audience. His research included interviews with young migrants in a detention centre in Catania, where he heard adventure stories reminding him of Joseph Conrad and Jack London. 

We need more films about migration

In Io Capitano, two cousins in Senegal, Seydou and Moussa (actors Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall), manage to dodge parental controls and raise money to go to Europe – having little clue how fake visas, expenses and bribes are going to wreck their journey at every stage. But they remain good-humoured and press on across the Sahara from Niger into Libya where they suffer appalling treatment and finally separation after Moussa is wounded in a gunfight. They are taken to prison and ransoms are demanded from their families. Finally they meet up on a building site in Tripoli and manage to join a boat.

Io Capitano
Seydou and Moussa played by Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall
Image by: Greta De Lazzaris

The extraordinary opening sequences in this film, showing Senegalese dancing and drumming, colourful markets and joie de vivre, raise the question, why would anyone want to leave such a vital African nation with so much to offer? In that setting Seydou’s mother is superbly acted by Ndeye Khady Sy as a figure of great warmth and common sense, knowing the truth but unable quite to grapple with her son’s obvious lies.

Generosity of spirit is another theme of the film. There is another extraordinary sequence in the depiction of the Sahara crossing when exhausted travellers are left to die. One woman collapsed in the sand reminds Seydou of his mother and he rushes to bring her water, just too late. But through his love the woman is levitated into a form of resurrection.

Io Capitano posterThere is another touching scene in which Seydou is befriended by a man who is missing his own son. Together they start work building a wall for a trafficker who exploits them as slaves, but finally his boss – obviously living well from the extortion – commissions a beautiful fountain which secures them their release.

The face of Seydou himself as the central character is sometimes frozen very effectively on screen in the camera’s lingering shots. This image is strongest in the last minutes of the film when he quietens the restless crowd of passengers with Muslim prayers.

We need more films about migration. It is such a fascinating subject for cinema, a combination of many different characters and motives, and it affects us directly: our security, our economy and our politics. This one is not to be missed.

Lord Sandwich is a Crossbench peer

Io Capitano
Directed by: Matteo Garrone
UK release: Friday 5 April

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