I, captain

Frame from 'I, Captain', film by Matteo Garrone/ Disclosure


Commentary on Matteo Garrone's film, showing in cinemas

I Captain, a feature film by Matteo Garrone, is an epic, in the literary sense of the term: epic or heroic poetry, a literary genre whose composition consists of a long, narrative poem, generally dealing with the deeds of a hero, historical or mythical events, elements considered fundamental to a given culture.

The hero completes an epic trajectory: the crossing of events, real and imaginary, contribute to the formation of a ethos personal, set of traits and modes of behavior that shape your character and identity. In the West, the hero of all heroes is Ulysses, who wandered for ten years until he reached his native land, Ithaca, after having destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy, seen cities and customs of many men and suffered a thousand torments at sea, when he fought. for the life and return of his companions.

In the globalized world we live in, where fetishes travel at the speed of light, an epic trajectory can fit into a TikTok video. That's what happened to Seydou and Moussa, two boys on the outskirts of Dakar, capital of Senegal: driven by an immediately desirable consumer dream – to become pop stars in Europe – but painfully unviable, they save money and fight.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, it is a Lacanian film: they firmly believe in the imaginary, but they do not realize that the real is inapprehensible. There is no shortage of dissuasive alarms – Seydou's mother remembers the dead who are left in the desert, and those who drown in the sea. Another adult, enraged as his mother admonishes: “Europe is nothing like you imagine”. Only the local shaman approves the trip. Nothing stops them, they take the bus and embark on a journey across half of the African continent, leaving the east coast and going up through Libya to the Mediterranean, with the aim of landing in Italy.

Matteo Garrone suggests a cinematographic metaphor to situate the film's spatiality. We know these stories, boats full of immigrants, but I Captain narrates from a different angle: not from the point of view of the arriving boats, but from the point of view of those who undertook the journey. In this sense, the film is the counterpoint of the Western imagination.

The epic begins in Niger where they obtain false passports: they cross the sub-Saharan zone in a small, crowded truck, driven without any care – a traveler falls out and is ignored. The landscape is filled with corpses floating in the desert sand. Afterwards, a strenuous walk under the relentless sun claims yet another victim, an elderly woman, to the despair of Seydou who tries to rescue her. “We can’t stop”, insists Moussa – and the guide continues quickly, all that remains is the elderly woman’s fantasy of levitation. Death stalks the heroes: arbitrary arrests, enslavement, violence coming from all sides begin, few are saved.

Anyway, Libya. A fragmented country, rich in oil and haunted by internal divisions driven by Islamic militias, including the most fearsome of all, the Islamic Army: between 2012 and 2020 Libya experienced a civil war pulverized, where the militias each had their own ideology and armed power. They monitored the security of cities and strategic installations, controlled borders and even managed detention centers. Just like in Homer's classic poem, Seydou and Moussa suffer a thousand torments as they fight for their lives – taking the boat and going to Europe was the last option. In this point, I Captain takes a turn: from the desert landscape we move on to a maritime adventure, in the same Mediterranean that Ulysses sailed.

Two sources were essential for preparing the script, both African immigrants. Mamadou Kouassi, originally from the Ivory Coast, undertook the journey with his cousin around 15 years ago and now lives in Caserta, near Naples. Like Seydou, Mamadou Kouassi witnessed people abandoned in the desert, was separated from his cousin and later detained in Libya, where he remained for three years. The other reference is Amara Fofana, who left her home country, Guinea, in 2014, heading to Europe. In Tripoli, he was forced to captain a boat with 250 people. Arriving on Italian soil, he shouted: “I'm 15 years old, I'm the captain of the ship!” He was arrested, left, and now lives and works in Belgium. His odyssey lasted a year.

The repercussion of a narrative like this is immediate, especially in Europe, where migratory pressure is one of the main political issues. In September 2023, Pope Francis received the director and African consultants: shortly afterwards, in Brussels, hundreds of European parliamentarians watched the special screening of the film, followed by debates. The film was selected to compete for the Oscar for international productions. The saga continues.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar). [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


I, captain (Io Capitano)
Italy, Belgium, France, 2023, 121 minutes.
Director: Matteo Garrone.
Cast: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawadogo.

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