19 April 2024
lo capitano read calum cooper's review

2024 Glasgow Film Festival Review – Lo Capitano (2023)

lo capitano read calum cooper's review
With callous troglodytes like Suella Braverman and her racist rhetoric against immigrants having until recently been in power, the contemporary refugee crisis weighs on the minds of not just us Britons, but across all of Europe. Whether it’s those fleeing from war or those seeking a new life, it is a crisis that is at threat of being dehumanised by those in power who would rather blame said refugees for societal issues than their own incompetence. “Io Capitano” (2023) serves as a rebuttal to that proposed dehumanisation. The result is a good, well-meaning film, but one that perhaps basks in trauma a little too much.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) is a 16-year-old boy living in squalor in Dakar, Senegal. Against the wishes of his overprotective mother, he and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) leave the city to travel to Europe, believing they can find a new life and, by sending money back, help their families escape poverty too. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that they are in over their heads, as the initial leg of their journey takes them from the bus stations of Dakar to a shady house that charges them for fake passports to the Sahara desert itself, which they must eventually trek on foot.

The journey from one continent to another is a perilous undertaking, and the film’s use of scale captures the underlying hope and lack thereof underneath the picturesque imagery. As Seydou, Moussa, and a band of dozens of other hopefuls cross the seemingly never-ending sands of the Sahara, the use of wide-shots and aerial footage demonstrates the vastness of this landscape, which feels like only a fraction of the enormity that is their transcontinental journey. Such daunting imagery hints at the opportunity that may await these boys if they are successful in their trip, but such spaciousness could just as easily represent desolation. If they fail then they will be left with even less than what they already had.

Interestingly, there is a sprinkle of fantasy added to the film’s recipe. The end goal is to reach Europe – Italy in the case of these boys – but as the weight of their ambitions begins to take its toll on the pair, the film begins to enter the realms of hallucination. One notable sequence sees Seydou try to help a fellow traveller who has passed out from exhaustion, as he envisions himself levitating her into the air and helping her through the desert with ease. Even the final destination of their journey is painted with a fantastical light as if Europe is a glowing utopia that will reward the boys for the cost of their migration. Ecstatic conversations about what the pair will do once they reach Italy only add to this image of grandeur.

But reality is messier than the binary portrayals in fantasies. The boys find themselves confronted with the corruption, exploitation, and totalitarianism of other governments the further into the trip they go. This includes spending time in a prison in Niger where they are made to bear the brunt of fanatical greed through torture and bodily wringing. Even before they embark on their journey, their point of contact warns them that Europe is nothing like how it is portrayed in film and television, citing the rampant disregard European societies have for their homeless as their elites get richer and the poor literally get colder and hungrier.

Not portraying these hardships would be disingenuous, as the film is designed to be a reflection on what migrants are faced with on their way to a new life, even ignoring the ignorance and prejudice many are faced with if they do make it to Europe. However, it spends rather a lot of time within these realms of trauma, with big swathes of the film being dedicated to the toll of torture and oppression. Perhaps this was the aim of the film, but its moments of hope come mostly in the form of dialogue where the visual component of the story spends much of its time detailing the pain and difficulties of their circumstances. There’s an imbalance in its execution where it threatens to become nothing but bleakness with only nuggets of hope that feel somewhat ham-fisted in delivery. It’s far from inauthentic, but the despair starts to feel gratuitous after a while.

Where the film manages to maintain engagement is in the subdued strength of its actors and how they portray the transformations of their characters. Seydou Sarr is particularly impressive with the way he captures his character’s growth from someone naive into something of a leader as he continues to champion his compassion even as the world around him threatens to turn him jaded. His dynamics with the other characters enhance the humanity of the narrative in how he learns from those he interacts with. One portion of the film sees him doing labour with a stranger named Martin (Issaka Sawadogo), a man who takes a liking to Seydou due to the ways he reminds him of his son. This isn’t overtly said but can be gleaned from the audiovisual presentation of their scenes together. More moments like this would’ve done a lot to embolden the already good material that the film mostly basks in.

Io Capitano” tells an important story and has an abundance of empathy at its core. Its insistence on portraying the bleakness of contemporary migration may border on excessive, but it certainly captures the humanity of its subject through its organic character arcs and strong performances. While it may serve best as a story of a fantasy coming apart at the seams, it’s a reality that far too many in more privileged positions are in need of realising.

★★★

Playing as part of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival / In UK Cinemas on April 5th / Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo / Dir. Matteo Garrone / Altitude Films 


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