In a case of life imitating art and art imitating life, Matteo Garrone found himself traversing uncharted territory at the helm of his latest film, Io Capitano. In fact, the Italian filmmaker behind such acclaimed dramas as Gomorrah (2008) and Dogman (2018) nearly didn't make the Oscar-nominated film at all.
"I was honestly very worried about this movie, and it took eight years to decide to make it," Garrone says. "I was worried about the risk of speculating too much and exploiting these poor migrants by making their journey about, and from, my point of view."
Io Capitano is an Odyssean drama focused on two young men from Senegal, Seydou and Moussa (played by newcomers Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall), who set out on a treacherous journey from West Africa to Italy in hopes of starting a new life. Capturing the truth of the migrant experience was imperative to the filmmaker at every step of making the film: For starters, Garrone's Italian script had to be translated into French and then orally passed on to the cast in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal but one which the director himself does not speak.
"Over the last 15 years, 27,000 people have died trying to make the journey that I show in the movie," explains the filmmaker. "We wanted to give a visual form to a part of the journey we don't see."
Io Capitano premiered at the 80th Venice Film Festival, where Garrone was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director and Sarr won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor. Now, the film is nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Oscars, which Garrone tells A.frame has made him "incredibly proud."
A.Frame: The film is both visually stunning and stunningly realistic. Why was it essential to make Io Capitano both realistic and cinematic?
It was very difficult to find the right balance. At times, I felt like I was jumping from Gomorrah to Pinocchio. I am getting older, which helped me realize that, in this movie, the main character, Seydou, is very similar to Pinocchio. He's naive, pure, and innocent, and he escapes from home without saying anything to his mother — like Pinocchio does with Geppetto — and he discovers the violence of the world outside. That was something crucial for Carlo Collodi when he originally wrote Pinocchio. It was very important to show children how danger can be a consequence when they don't do what their parents say. We wanted to tell this contemporary epic story with an approach that was not a realistic documentary but an approach that could be like a modern odyssey. It's like a fairy tale.
You mention age, so as a filmmaker, could you have made this movie and told this story as effectively 10 or 15 years ago, without the wisdom and insight you have now?
I made this movie by listening to people's stories and becoming a mediator, because jumping into a culture that is not my culture was a big challenge. I was honestly very worried about this movie, and it took eight years to decide to make it. I was worried about the risk of speculating too much and exploiting these poor migrants by making their journey about, and from, my point of view. It took a long time for me to decide to make it, and I felt the movie chose me in a way. I chose Dogman and Pinocchio, but Io Capitano chose me. I realized the only approach I could have with this movie was for us to do the film together. I put the service of the story in the hands of the people who usually don't have a voice. I had the idea to take a reverse shot of what we are used to seeing, so I put the camera on the other side and tried to tell the story from their point of view. I also decided to do that in a language I didn't know.
Io Capitano is the second movie you've made in a language other than your own. [After the English-language Tale of Tales in 2015.] How different was this experience from the previous one?
I don't speak English very well, but at least I could understand what the actors said when I made Tale of Tales. With Io Capitano, it was a matter of trust. I didn't know the words, so I always asked the interpreter, "Did they say something close to the script or not?" They were like, "Yes, more or less," so I would say, "Okay, let's go to the next scene." I would direct them using the sound and the tone of their voices. I feel like I made this movie with many co-directors, because so many people helped me recreate this world and gave me the privilege of being able to make it. About 90 percent of the actors you see behind the leads made the journey in real life, so when we were on the set for months, the actors lived with people who had that experience. That helped us a lot. When we wrote the script, we started by listening to them. Because of that, every frame of the movie is connected to some part of someone's journey that really happened.
At the same time, this story is universal. I'm Italian, so I come from a country of immigrants. In every part of the world, someone has the desire to move, to try to find a better life in another country. Io Capitano is the story of two kids who are not doing it to escape war but have other reasons. In Italy, we used to think that when we saw these boats arriving, they were running from conflict as if that was the only way they had the right. In Africa, about 70 percent of the population is young. They watch the world on their phones and through social media and chat with people in other parts of the world. They exchange images, but they often only see what is inviting to them. They make promises and show how rich we are, but they don't see the background and reality we know. The desire to move is human, but for them to do this journey means risking their life. We often only see the last part.
You shot Io Capitano chronologically. Was that a logistical decision, or to make sure that the reactions, especially in that final scene, would be authentic?
That was a big reason. I always try to work chronologically if possible, because it can greatly help the actor. It's especially true when you have actors who are not academic scholars of the craft, because they are very emotional and pure; they can live the journey of the character and simultaneously live the emotion day by day. It's much easier. In this case, I did something I had done only once before with Gomorrah: I didn't show the script to the boys in advance. They didn't know if their characters were going to succeed and arrive in Italy or not. They found everything out day by day, so it was a new adventure. Moustapha Fall, who played Moussa, was studying theater in Dakar in Senegal, and Seydou Sarr, who played Seydou, was dreaming about becoming a football player. His mother and sister were actresses in a small village and pushed him to go to the casting. They both dream about discovering Europe, and Moustapha also wants to go to the States. This movie could be an opportunity for them to move or travel. Moustapha said that he was sure that his character was going to have his leg cut off and the others were sure that they were going to die. I created a sort of wedding between the person and the character, so I wanted to keep that tension.
Did you always have the movie's title in mind, or was that something that came later in the process?
Fortunately, this time, the first thing that arrived was the title, but usually, it isn't easy to find. Eight years ago, I went to see a friend in Sicily who was the director of a center for immigrant children. I listened to the story of these kids for the first time, and one boy told me that when he was 15 years old, he had driven a boat to save the lives of 250 people. He had no idea how to drive a boat. That's how we got the last part of the movie. The people at the facility told me that when he arrived, he was so proud of saving those lives and his heroic act that he started to say, "I'm the captain!" So, we put that in the movie. Unfortunately, the police put him in jail, and he thought it was because he was a minor, but it was because what he did was considered trafficking. He was a hero and went to jail, but it was decided that we wouldn't end the movie that way. Instead, we decided to finish with the closeup of him as help arrived. It was difficult to put anything after that. As we talk about this, there are hundreds and hundreds of "Io Capitano"s in jail, but they are real heroes. They're a victim of a system. We know very well that the real traffickers don't risk their lives on those boats; they take the money and get someone else to do it, and they don't care if they succeed or not. They only care about the money. Anything beyond that is not their problem.
You said that so many people who have made this journey were involved in making the film. Seeing what you have firsthand, how has making this film changed you and your view on the reality of this kind of immigration?
I knew that there were people dying in the prison in Libya. I knew that there were people dying in the desert or on the sea, but to make this journey with them helped me to understand the injustice from inside. So immediately, I felt an empathy with them and with this desire to discover the world. There's this innocence, this humanity. To die for a right — a human right — especially when you're young or you want to discover the world. I think it is very important that this is a movie about violence, but also a movie of hope. There is death, but there is also life. He is fighting for life against a system of death. So, I think it's a movie that gives hope, in a way.
And now the film has been nominated for an Oscar. What does that mean to you as a filmmaker?
Being nominated for an Oscar is a very important acknowledgment. We are delighted to be beside other great directors and films, especially because this year's quality is very high. I'm incredibly proud to be in this group. I think the most important thing it gives to the movie is the possibility that a larger audience will see it. When you make a movie, the most important thing is reaching the most people, and the hardest part is getting people to watch your movie. Because of the nomination, Io Capitano has been rereleased in Italy, and it will be released in 20 countries in Africa — which is very unusual! Also, because of that, they will see what the risk is when making this journey.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for an interview.