‘Io Capitano’ Review: The Highway Through Hell Of African Migrants

Io Capitano (2023) © Archimede

Inspired by real-life events, ‘the trip’ by two Senegalese teenagers is a must-see on the never-ending immigration across the Mediterranean Sea. The latest movie by Italian director Matteo Garrone is a faithful transposition of one of the most dramatic European issues over the last two decades.


There’s a man who shared his experience as a source of inspiration for Io Capitano. Mamadou Kouassi, 41, works at a social centre for migrants in the Southern Italian city of Caserta. He arrived in Italy in 2007, after a  trip from West Africa to Italy that lasted more than three years. Kouassi got in touch with Garrone through a journalist friend of the director and acted as an essential consultant on the set: “I started crying during the film,” he said to CNN at the film premiere. “This movie makes me re-experience my life 15 years ago. It is an emotion I had forgotten.” 

Io Capitano is the adaptation of Kouassi’s hell on his way to Europe. He left his hometown in Ghana when he was 15, and started saving money to make it to Europe with his cousin: the movie tracks the two from Senegal to Italy. It recounts the often untold journey of Northern–African migrants, rooted in the friendship of two teenagers wearing knock-off football t-shirts and Gucci jackets. Their dream is to earn money in Europe and help their families back home, become musicians and sign autographs for white people.

This fantasy is short-lived, however. The two teenagers are unaware of Europe’s cold climate and that people sleep on the street, just like in their hometown. Over the two hours of the movie, the shy and naive eyes of protagonist Seydou fade into the veil of tears and saltiness of the determined captain—hence the title, Io Capitano—who screams proudly at the Italian coast guard from the roof of his rusty boat. The smart wit of Moussa, Seydou’s cousin, transforms into an almost hopeless disillusionment in the face of swindles, smuggling, death, prison and slavery.

Io Capitano (2023) © Archimede

The story of Seydou and Moussa is told through a linear and balanced editing. The first half an hour of the movie tells how the youngsters scraped together the money for the trip, before focusing on the troubles in the African desert and in Libya. The cinematography, which is narrow and focused on eyes and gestures in the initial Senegalese sequences, widens to take in mesmerising views of the African desert that the two cousins travel by bus, truck and foot. All the sequences are glued together by a screenplay that elevates the main theme of the movie. A journey all too frequently boiled down to news–headline statistics of migrants reaching European shores through the Mediterranean sea—a section that spans just the final 20 minutes of the film—is rigorously reconstructed in its hows and whys.

It’s not the first time that Matteo Garrone is bringing hot societal issues to the big screen. His 12th directorial feature recalls the themes of his debut film, Land in Between (1996), in which he told three stories of immigration in ‘90s Italy. Breakthrough mafia story Gomorra (2008) and the more recent Dogman (2018), a crime story set in a suburb of Rome, again take on weighty topics as moral decay, criminality and survival.

Garrone’s direction of Io Capitano is successful, finding the right blend between his authorship and the credibility of the events. Fairy–tale sequences, reminding the audience of his version of Pinocchio (2019), are carefully balanced with the real-life circumstances faced by Kouassi and other four migrants, who acted as additional consultants.

Seydou and Moussa are played by Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall in their cinematic debuts. Cast during screen tests in Senegal, neither knew of the existence of ‘the trip’ prior to filming.

Io Capitano (2023) © Archimede

At the 80th Venice International Film Festival, Garrone was awarded the Silver Lion (best director) and Seydou Sarr received the Marcello Mastroianni award (best emerging actor). Io Capitano was also nominated at the Academy Awards for best international feature film. Sarr and Fall made the trip to Hollywood. Like their characters were dreaming at the beginning of the movie, the two young actors can now help their families thanks to their promising careers.

The Verdict

Io Capitano is a well-balanced drama that tells the odyssey of the Africans who seek fortune in Europe. It’s not an easy watch, punctuated by a lack of human rights, exploitation and death. It’s worth seeing since it tells a documentary story through an emotional cinema that brings new characters and an untold story. That’s why it’s not just for those interested in the issue of migrants before their arrival on European shores.

Io Capitano is in cinemas from Friday 5th April

Words by Michele Crestani

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