Matteo Garrone on Oscar-Nominee Io Capitano and Sharing Migrants’ Stories

Italian drama depicts migration crisis through Homeric odyssey

“I tried to be faithful to the story of the migrants,” writer/director Matteo Garrone explains, recalling his conversations with the survivors he met while developing Io Capitano. “It’s a movie that started from listening – I’ve been listening a lot – and also from trust. We trusted each other. They finally wanted to show the world what it means to make this journey. Very often, they are not believed when they try to tell their story.”

In this Oscar-nominated film, Garrone (Dogman) uses an ancient mythological basis to showcase a modern tragedy. He describes Io Capitano as a Homeric fairytale: “It’s the journey of the hero. It’s a very classic structure,” he says, speaking with That Shelf.

Teenaged Seydou (Seydou Sarr, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging actors at the 2023 Venice Film Festival) and his cousin, Moussa (Moustapha Fall), embark on what becomes an epic adventure from Senegal to Italy. They are in search of a better life. They face impossible odds and must endure a series of challenges. Not only must they cross the merciless Sahara desert, but they face an almost constant threat of violence along each leg of their crossing.

Garrone spent a great deal of time speaking with migrants at reception centres and he continued to talk with survivors on the set of the film. Io Capitano is an amalgam of these stories. “I remember when I listened to a story about this boy. When he was 15, he drove a boat to save 250 people without knowing how to drive the boat,” says Garrone. This tale struck a creative chord: “That could be the beginning of a novel by [Robert Louis] Stevenson or Jack London. That reminded me of these adventures by these great writers.”

The filmmaker relied on these personal accounts for the story and script of Io Capitano. The migrants he worked with most closely became collaborators. “I was an intermediary,” adds Garrone. “I put my experience at the service of their voice, at the service of their story, so we were sort of co-directors.”

Garrone explains that his aim was to go beyond the headlines to provide a greater context and inspire the audience to individuate migrants. He wanted to provide what he calls a “reverse shot” to show the journey before they land in Italy: “I put two and a half stories together but then when I was on the set, I was always listening to the migrants. I was there to recreate, not in a didactic way, something that could be true, authentic, to respect the survivors who made this journey, to respect the people who died. In the last 10 years, 30, 000 people have died making this journey.”

Part of his quest to present the truth meant that he did not attempt realism, even flowing into magic realism to deepen the audience’s connection to the central character’s experience. “We didn’t take an approach as documentarists. The story has also moments that are abstract,” observes Garrone. Io Capitano is carefully crafted so that each cinematic element, be it cinematography or costumes, works in the service of drawing the viewer into Seydou’s and Moussa’s experiences. The film’s visual strategy reflects their changing circumstances as the warm colour schemes in Senegal shift to the washed-out imagery of the desert.

Although Io Capitano depicts an often brutal view of humanity, it is pierced by heartfelt performances. The actors anchor the film to invite the audience into a greater understanding of the experiences of migrants who make such a journey. Io Capitano is therefore harrowing yet uplifting. “The landscape is a protagonist, but the actors are the real power of this movie because they are so pure in their acting, so human, so innocent,” says Garrone.  “The audience immediately creates an empathy with them and sees from their eyes.”

In Io Capitano, Garrone creates “a movie about dreams, about desires” that is universal and remains a timely record of a tragedy that exists only in headlines for some – but perhaps won’t continue to remain as such thanks to this eye-opening and ultimately inspiring cinematic depiction. For everyone involved, he affirms, “it was very important to show the world what they passed through, so to finally give voice to people who usually don’t have a voice.”


Io Capitano is now playing in select theatres including TIFF Lightbox.