The Reel Review


Two teenage cousins secretly leave their families in Senegal for an arduous, modern day Homeric odyssey across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, all for a chance at a better life in Europe. Acting newcomers Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall star in co-writer/director Matteo Garrone’s harrowing Oscar-nominated drama loosely based on the true story of Mamadou Kouassi, an immigrant from Ivory Coast.

Seydou Sarr (highest in the middle) and Moustapha Fall (in front of him) in Io Capitano

Set to a sweeping backdrop of the picturesque but unforgiving Sahara Desert, this drama sensitively and meticulously captures horror after horror: paying bribes while traveling nervously through Mali with faked passports, witnessing other immigrants dropping dead in the desert from exhaustion or abandoned to certain death if they fall from the back of a speeding pickup truck, being robbed by bandits in Niger and then enduring horrific extortion and torture before being sold as slaves at a filthy detention camp in Libya. Once free in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, a new horror awaits: Seydou, who can’t even swim, must now steer a rickety boat overcrowded with hundreds of refugees to Italy. “Io capitano” is Italian for “I am the captain.”

Seydou Sarr in Io Capitano

Garrone intentionally paces his story very slowly to capture the monotony of the journey, interspersed with explosive life changing moments of drama and convincing performances from newcomers Sarr and Fall. The incorporation of fantasy also helps humanize the saga. While the film does drag at times, Io Capitano is an important movie worth seeing to better understand the plight of the millions of African immigrants to Europe from their perspective.


Mamadou Kouassi and his cousin Emmanuel prior to leaving Ivory Coast and right, Mamadou today

• Mamadou Kouassi says it took him surviving four kidnappings over three years to get from eastern Ivory Coast to Italy. He says the first thing he did upon arriving in Italy in 2008 was to call his mother, incredulous that he was alive, to apologize for leaving her. He has two children with his Italian partner and works as a mediator and translator for other African immigrants.

Script supervisor and story inspiration Mamadou Kouassi, Seydou Sarr, Matteo Garrone and Moustapha Fall at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.

Io Capitano won 12 awards at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, including Best Director for Matteo Garrone and Best Young Actor for Seydou Sarr, and was Oscar nominated for Best International Film.

Io Capitano was filmed in Senegal, Morocco (with Casablanca serving as Tripoli, Errachida for the souk and Merzouga for the sand dunes), and Sicily.


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