Review: Italy’s Harrowing Io Capitano Earns Its Place Among This Year’s International Feature Oscar Nominees

Although it’s one of this year’s five Oscar-nominated Best International Feature Films, Italy’s Io Capitano is the last of the five to finally be released in theaters stateside, and now everyone can get a true sense as to why this powerhouse survival drama made the cut. Directed and co-written by master filmmaker Matteo Garrone (Gommorah), the film is being framed as a look at the immigration/refugee experience from the vantage point of two young Senegalese teenagers living in Dakar but desperate to find their way to Europe, where they believe they can become world-famous musicians. They save up a substantial amount of cash and quietly leave life with their families in West Africa for what they hope is a better future abroad.

What follows is a condensed portrait of hell, as these ill-prepared boys encounter an unimaginable scam artist, corrupt authority figure, and the scorched earth of the Sahara Desert, all of which seem determined to take either their money or life or both. First-time actors Seydou Sarr plays Seydou and Moustapha Fall is Moussa, and each leg of their journey is another one crammed inside a vehicle or vessel not fit for human travel. Even when they reach a destination like Syria, they are confronted with criminals who force them to call home and ask for more money to be sent or risk going to prison or worse. At every turn, someone is looking for money, sometimes for legitimate needs like transportation or medical treatment; most times, it’s simply a bribe or outright thievery.

Because we know a bit about this phenomenon, we’re aware that people die by the thousands every year making this journey, especially when it comes to crossing water, and the final act of Io Capitano finds the boys piloting a rusted out boat across the immensity of the Mediterranean Sea toward Italy. Along the way, illness, weather, and every imaginable peril seems to cross their path, and even a hopeful conclusion is tempered with the danger of an unknown future. Many of the places they end up won’t even allow Black people to use basic resources such as a hospital, so their anxiety is elevated to almost unimaginable levels.

Winning the top directing and acting prizes at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Io Capitano is a harrowing, fully engaging, often terrifying experience that you feel with your entire body. And as much as you want these two wonderful but naive characters to make it safely to wherever they are headed, we know that the journey even after they make it will be rough, if not impossible to navigate. It’s impossible not to get caught up in their desire for a better life, but the closer they think they are to that goal, the more nervous the audience gets for them. It’s an incredible story, and one that absolutely deserves to be in the company of its other nominees.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.