Italy’s Matteo Garrone brings migrant drama to Oscars

With his latest film in the running for an Oscar, Italian director Matteo Garrone is hoping to shine a light on the desperate plight of migrants — all without broaching politics.

“Io Capitano”, an epic tale of two teenagers from Senegal crossing Africa to try to reach Europe, is one of five movies nominated for “Best Foreign Film” at the Academy Awards on 10 March.

The Oscar nod is “so important”, the director told AFP, especially “when these delicate stories are told”. 

“Every recognition helps us overcome prejudices among a wider audience,” Garrone said during an interview at his office in Rome.

Behind him, dozens of photos and drawings on a storyboard point to the many months spent in Morocco and Senegal to prepare the 11th feature film of the director, best known to international audiences for 2008’s “Gomorrah” and “Pinocchio” in 2019.

Despite its spectacular photography and touches of poetic dreaminess, “Io Capitano” addresses a brutal reality — the ordeal of migrants, many of them mere children, making their way across Africa to finally reach the Mediterranean, and Europe beyond. 

In the film, two 15-year-old cousins decide to leave their family without a word to try their chances, a scenario that came to Garrone during his first visit to a reception center for underage migrants in Catania, Sicily.

While there, Garrone heard how a makeshift vessel that had crossed the dangerous waters with 250 people onboard was captained by a teenager, who had never before been at the helm of a boat. 

“It reminded me of adventure stories, of the sea, by Stevenson, by Jack London, by Conrad,” he said.

“We, especially in Europe, are used to imagining that inside those boats when they arrive there are only people fleeing wars or climate change or desperation,” he said. 

“This is often the case, but we forget that even in Africa 70 percent of people are young,” he said. 

Through images and videos posted on social media, they see a vision of another world in the West, “that makes promises to them”.

“So there is a whole section of young people, as the film tells, who leave to pursue a dream,” Garrone said. 

“The dream of knowing the world, finding better opportunities, traveling, trying to succeed today.”

‘Currencies of exchange’

“Io Capitano” captures some of the “almost documentary reality” of “Gomorrah”, about the Camorra mafia in Italy’s south, while also tapping the “magical abstraction” of “Pinocchio”, the director said.

The violence of the migrant traffickers during chilling scenes of torture is reminiscent of methods used by the organized crime group in the Naples area.

“The mechanisms are always linked to the search for profit. These kids, these victims, become currencies of exchange, vending machines,” Garrone said. 

But the director, whose country is at the front lines of Europe’s migration issue, stops short of pointing fingers at politicians, saying he began working on the film well before the current hard-right government of Giorgia Meloni came to power.

“It is not a film created to criticize or attack a particular government over another,” he said. 

Instead, it was intended “to try to shed light on an unjust system, on a continuous violation of the most basic human rights.”

Papal screening

The film won a Silver Lion best directing award at the Venice Film Festival and a best newcomer award for its young star Seydou Sarr.

In Africa, it has been released in about 20 countries, while in Italy it has made the round of schools and even the Vatican, which organized a special screening in September. 

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken out for migrants throughout his papacy, received Garrone and the film’s two stars, Sarr and Moustapha Fall.

“Francesco told us that this is perhaps the biggest problem of our time, you can see how close he feels to it,” Garrone told the Corriere della Sera newspaper after the meeting. 

Once migrants from Africa manage to cross the continent to reach the north, they still must survive passage across the central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migratory maritime crossing. 

Last year, 3,041 people died or went missing trying to cross any part of the Mediterranean, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.