Italy’s Oscar Nominee Is a Great Film, but It Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Of all the offerings this Oscar season, one stands out: “Io Capitano.” A nominee for best international feature film, the film is a visually stunning and often harrowing account of the journey from West Africa to Europe. Based on many real-life stories, it shows the horrors of the perilous route across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea that more than one million people have taken over the past decade and along which thousands have died.

At a time when Italy’s far right is in government, introducing draconian anti-migrant laws amid a flood of poisonous rhetoric, “Io Capitano”represents an important intervention by its director, Matteo Garrone. Well known for his 2008 film about the Neapolitan mafia, “Gomorrah,” and for his faithful, magic-realist retelling of “Pinocchio” in 2019, Mr. Garrone has now cemented his reputation as one of Italy’s most prized directors.

The film makes several bold choices. It focuses not on someone fleeing a war zone but on a young so-called economic migrant from Senegal. Wolof dominates the script, claiming a place for a language that, though present in Italian society, has been nearly absent from Italian cinema. And moments of magic-realism provide the viewer — and the protagonist — with some momentary relief from the tortures of the desert and detention, weaving a Muslim angel into its visual world. All told, it is a worthy Oscar nominee.

Yet for all its achievements, the film doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Io Capitano” owes its title to the final scenes of the film in which the Senegalese protagonist, Seydou, is strong-armed into helming a rusty fishing trawler that takes him and hundreds more from Libya to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. His heroic actions save everyone’s lives, and the film ends with him screaming “Me, Captain!” over and over again, as a helicopter whirs above the boat. Here, Seydou is a hero just as much as Walt Whitman’s

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