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Dan Webster reviews "Io Capitano"

Film still of Seydou Sarr as Seydou in Io Capitano (2023).
Io Capitano, Archimede/Pathé Films/RAI Cinema/Tarantula/Cohen Media Group, 2023.
Film still of Seydou Sarr as Seydou in Io Capitano (2023).


They come from all over the globe, fleeing from wherever life offers them little opportunity to better themselves and bound for lands where the promise is of a bright, if too often fanciful, future.

By “they,” of course, I mean immigrants, and in movie after movie, their stories have made for some of the most dramatic, powerful and sad stories ever to play out on screens big or small. Think of Gregory Nava’s 1983 feature El Norte. Think of the 2021 animated feature Flee. Of the 2000 documentary Well-Founded Fear.

One of the latest such movies is titled Io Capitano, and it was Italy’s 2024 entry for Best International Feature Film and one of this year’s five nominees. Though it ended up losing out to Britain’s The Zone of Interest, Io Capitano remains an intense cinematic experience—one buoyed by the central performance of a 17-year-old Senegalese actor named Seydou Sarr.

Sarr portrays a 16-year-old boy, also named Seydou, who along with his cousin Moussa (played by Moustapha Fall) lives in the capital city of Senegal, Dakar. Lured by their love of music—both fashion themselves as talented singer-songwriters—they fantasize about making it big in Europe, where—as Moussa sees it—white people will beg them for their autographs.

The trick, of course, is how to get there. Set as it is on Africa’s west coast—stuck between Mauritania and Gambia—Senegal is some 2,500 miles from the Mediterranean Sea—and much of the land they’ll have to cross falls in wastelands of the Sahara Desert.

And it’s not as if anyone is willing to support them. When Seydou, the dutiful son, shares his plan with his mother (played by Khady Sy), she gets understandably angry, not to mention dismissive. When the boys seek out someone in the market who they believe knows how to undertake such a journey, the man becomes angrier even than Seydou’s mother, warning them that they have no idea of how dangerous such a journey is.

But they won’t be discouraged. And so they persevere, taking the money they’ve saved and simply asking around, which naturally leads them to a fast-talking guy who offers them a way. Soon they join a crowd of others, traveling for miles in a speeding truck—which doesn’t deign to stop for anyone who might fall out—before they even face the imposing desert dunes.

From there they walk, young and old, past the remains of others who have succumbed to the heat—a message that those who can’t make it are, again, going to be left behind. It’s a sign of Seydou’s sense of humanity that he only reluctantly is forced to abandon a woman who reminds him of his mother.

And all this occurs before the appearance of armed bandits, before the boys are separated, before beatings and torture in prison, before forced labor and escape, before every other horror they endure and before, ultimately, they find themselves aboard an overcrowded boat bound for Italy… with Seydou himself recruited to be the boat’s captain (thus the film’s title).

Amid all this, it’s the feel for who Seydou is that gradually becomes the central focus of director Matteo Garrone’s film. In his 2008 feature Gomorrah, which tells the story of the Naples crime community, Garrone’s focus was also on a pair of young boys. Part of Gomorrah deals with the desires of the two teens to become mobsters, with fatal results.

Io Capitano follows a different plot path. We watch as Seydou evolves slowly from a callow youth to something close to the man he may one day become, given the chance. As Seydou, the actor Sarr is mesmerizing, performing well enough to win the Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor at the 80th Venice International Film Festival—at which Io Capitano garnered the coveted Golden Lion Award for best film and Garrone Best Director honors.

If there is a downside, beyond the graphic portrayal of torture and hardship, it’s that even at its high point—when the boys celebrate a well-earned victory—the film hedges on their likely future. We who read the news know, though.

Like so many immigrant before them, Seydou and Moussa have far more obstacles to overcome before they can even dream of finding a better life.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for