Io Capitano

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It seems like “Io Capitano” was designed with the Best International Feature Oscar in mind. This particular kind of movie, which is typically mediocre but always well-meaning, is meant to evoke strong emotions in Oscar voters by elevating “important” tales to a prestige level and, in the process, obtaining the nation’s crucial nomination spot. Even if this technique can seem craven, it makes it hard to judge a film too harshly when, as in the case of “Io Capitano,” the tale is genuinely significant and ought to be conveyed. However, it’s disappointing that Italy’s official entry for the 96th Academy Awards is only passably good.

The rising star of Cannes, Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”), decides to accompany two Senegalese immigrants as they risk everything to get from Africa to Italy. Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall), cousins, are naive individuals who get into trouble the instant they leave their Dakar home. They fall prey to both the callous harshness of nature and human corruption. Their professed goal in moving to Europe is to support their family financially, but there’s also a young, stubborn element at play here; Seydou’s mother wants him to stay in Senegal because she worries about his safety if he moves. She claims that having her son is more important to her than having money. He is not attentive.

Every moment of relief is filled with tension as the audience waits for more terrible things to happen to Seydou and Moussa. The entire voyage is brutal, but a passage set in a jail in North Africa is particularly distressing. And for the most part, they do, too, until late in the movie, when Garrone and his co-writers play around with these expectations on a perilous final journey across the Mediterranean, defying the color-by-numbers suffering of earlier sequences. Tragic events, however, are always lurking behind the scenes.

Social dramas such as this one are prone to a familiar trap: so-called “misery porn,” in which a movie revels in the misery of its protagonists, who are typically people of color, in order to educate an audience that is assumed to be white. Occasionally, “Io Capitano” toy with this, showing long close-ups of the distressed faces of Seydou, Moussa, and other migrants. After a while, the sheer volume of these doses starts to feel numbing.

In addition to all the horror and misery, “Io Capitano” also toes the line between magical realism and another drama that chronicles the experience of migrants, Gregory Nava’s brilliant “El Norte” (1983). But Garrone’s picture does not employ the style as deftly as Nava’s does. Additionally, the film’s self-consciously creative cinematography has a National Geographic-esque shine to it, which distances the audience from the protagonists rather than exaggerating their journey.

And that’s where things become complicated since the main goal of a movie like “Io Capitano” is to make its characters more relatable in order to portray tales that are far too seldom reported in the media. It’s crucial to give immigration statistics people and identities, and “Io Capitano” provides just that. Additionally, the film is Italian, and the most of the dialogue is in French and Wolof, illustrating the variety of contemporary Europe. The annoying, unpleasant thorn in the side of things is this: Was this genuinely designed for African immigrants in need of support, or for bureaucrats hoping to win an Oscar? Both of these seem to be partially true.

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