Review | ‘Io Capitano’ puts a human face on the global refugee crisis

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StarSolidStarSolidStarSolidStarHalf(3.5 stars)

Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s résumé swings from gritty, often violent crime drama inspired by real events (“Gomorrah,” “Dogman”) to flights of disturbing, gothic fantasy (“Tale of Tales,” “Pinocchio”), with some social satire (“Reality”) thrown in along the way. In his Oscar-nominated, migrant-themed “Io Capitano,” he unites those varied impulses, fashioning a hero’s journey that feels utterly of the moment: inspired by the true stories of African immigrants, but told in a way that features episodes of both harrowing verisimilitude and hallucinatory magic realism.

It’s a film that is gorgeous at times yet also tough to watch.

The epic saga follows Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall), 16-year-old cousins who embark from Senegal toward Italy, first traveling westward by bus through Mali and Niger and then, fake passports in hand, trekking north across the Sahara toward Tripoli and the Mediterranean on foot. Their adventure will not unspool as they expect; those of us who have seen a Garrone film or two know better.

Sarr, who makes his startlingly assured acting debut here, plays the sweeter, less streetwise of the two boys, and it is Seydou around whom the story revolves. But the type of smarts that have helped his co-conspirator plan the trip won’t come in very handy in the desert: They save up money by skipping class and taking construction jobs behind their parents’ backs, dreaming of becoming pop stars in a Europe they’ve seen only on television and in films.

The boys almost immediately encounter heartless human smugglers, who don’t even hit the brakes to slow down when a migrant is accidentally thrown from the back of a speeding, overloaded pickup truck. Then there are the gun-toting bandits. Stitched together from the stories of actual migrants by Garrone and co-screenwriters Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso and Andrea Tagliaferri — and as brutal as some of its scenes are — “Io Capitano” is said to have been toned down from some of the more unsettling material gathered by the filmmakers, including reports of rape.

Paolo Carnera’s desert cinematography, in which the smallness of the migrants is rendered not just palpable but painful, is awesome, in the sense that it inspires both wonder and fear. There are also a couple of lovely dream sequences: In one, Seydou imagines himself going back to save a dying woman, who has been abandoned in the sand; later, after he and Moussa become separated and Seydou has been imprisoned by what’s called the Libyan Mafia, our hero imagines himself flying home to see his mother accompanied by a feathered, shamanic figure that he believes has been sent by the charlatan seer (Doodou Sagna) that Seydou and Moussa consulted before leaving Dakar.

Though it’s filmed by a European, the sensibility of “Io Capitano” feels more African than Italian, with several migrants listed as collaborating writers and also appearing among the large cast of extras.

The story culminates over water, as the last leg of Seydou and Moussa’s odyssey features a reluctant Seydou at the helm of a boat. The climax of “Io Capitano,” which translates loosely as “I’m the captain,” was taken from a story Garrone heard in a Sicilian refugee shelter of a 15-year-old African with no nautical navigation skills who was dragooned into piloting a vessel filled with 250 refugees. (The logic being that Italian authorities won’t arrest a minor for human trafficking.)

Like everything before it, this sequence is nerve-rattling, but also eye-opening. With all that has been said about the global refugee crisis, one voice has been conspicuously left out of all the shouting. “Io Capitano” takes a news story that’s mostly about numbers, and puts a human face on it.

Unrated. At area theaters. Contains disturbing images, including scenes of torture, and some strong language. In Wolof, French and some English with subtitles. 121 minutes.

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