In the service of the story

Matteo Garrone on fairy tales and Italy’s Oscar submission, Io Capitano

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Io Capitano, Pinocchio, Tale Of Tales director Matteo Garrone with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I would say that fairy tales, as Italo Calvino used to say, fairy tales are true. It’s a different way to talk about the human condition.”
Io Capitano, Pinocchio, Tale Of Tales director Matteo Garrone with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I would say that fairy tales, as Italo Calvino used to say, fairy tales are true. It’s a different way to talk about the human condition.”

Italy’s Oscar submission and Venice Film Festival UNESCO and Best Director Silver Lion winner Matteo Garrone’s suspenseful and fleet Io Capitano (Me Captain), co-written with Massimo Ceccherini (Garrone’s Pinocchio), Massimo Gaudioso (Dogman, Tale Of Tales. Gomorrah), and Andrea Tagliaferri, shot by Paolo Carnera (Mario Martone’s Nostalgia and Somebody Down There Likes Me, plus Francesca Archibugi’s The Hummingbird, all three with the great Pierfrancesco Favino) stars the naturalistic duo of Seydou Sarr (Marcello Mastroianni Award Best Young Actor) and Moustapha Fall with Ndeye Khady Sy, Oumar Diaw, Issaka Sawadogo.

Matteo Garrone on Io Capitano shot by Paolo Carnera: “Paolo put himself in the service of the story and he worked carefully on the light, but tried always to be natural, …”
Matteo Garrone on Io Capitano shot by Paolo Carnera: “Paolo put himself in the service of the story and he worked carefully on the light, but tried always to be natural, …”

Garrone’s Tale of Tales, based on Giambattista Basile’s early 17th century fairy tales, and his recent Pinocchio, have a lot in common with this very contemporary story, which also finds the hero inside the belly of a whale of sorts and it is up to him to find a way to safety for not just himself, but others. Gianfranco Rosi’s Oscar and César nominated masterpiece, Fire At Sea, gave us the perspective from the shores of Lampedusa and the eyes of young Samuele, who lived there.

When best friends Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) embark on the dangerous journey from Dakar, Senegal to Sicily, the two boys expect an adventure. They secretly work in construction to save money for the trip and before leaving, they go to the cemetery to ask the ancestors for their blessing. Lured by what they see on social media on their phones, a musical career could be in their stars. What they encounter instead are the unspeakable, unexpected horrors large parts of the world have turned a blind eye to.

While crossing the desert, someone falls off the back of the pickup truck Seydou and Moussa are seated in, and holding on for dear life. The vehicle does not stop; a threshold is crossed and our heroes merely begin to realise what may await. Who has good advice and wants to trick them out of their money? What do the rebels want? Sequences of magical realism plant us firmly in Seydou’s head. The floating woman who could not be saved is as real as the many middlemen and prison guards, the handlers and schemers, and traffickers.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Moussa (Moustapha Fall) crossing the desert
Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Moussa (Moustapha Fall) crossing the desert

From New York City, Matteo Garrone joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Io Capitano.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You have shown in your past work, such as Basile’s Tale of Tales, how classic fairy tales have nothing to do with escapism.

Matteo Garrone: My previous movie, Pinocchio, has a structure that is very similar to Io Capitano.

AKT: Exactly, that’s where I was heading! Both are cutting to the core of human experience. They are similar that way.

MG: Yes, I would say that fairy tales, as Italo Calvino used to say, fairy tales are true. It’s a different way to talk about the human condition. Honestly, the idea to make this movie started from the desire to try to give visual form to a part of the journey that we usually don’t know. Especially in Italy, where we are used to having every day news about migrants arriving in Italy, or trying to arrive. Sometimes they die on the Mediterranean. So we are used to listen every day to numbers - 300 arrived, 100 died.

We start to forget that behind those numbers there are human beings. So the idea was to make a sort of reverse-shot of what we’re used to seeing. To put the camera instead of the point of view of the Occident to the point of view of the African. And to try to follow from their point of view the journey. It was to give to the audience the emotional experience of what it means to make that journey.

Matteo Garrone on Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with the floating woman: “One way to tell he is wounded, we decided to show with his dreams.”
Matteo Garrone on Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with the floating woman: “One way to tell he is wounded, we decided to show with his dreams.”

AKT: Which is a journey that exists in so many tales.

MG: An archetype.

AKT: Because you make it also a tale of adventure and show in the beginning how full of life, how full of dreams the boys are. They want an adventure, and why not?

MG: Exactly! They are young, they have the desire very similar to our sons, or what we used to have when we were younger - to discover the world, look for better opportunities. We are in the States, it’s a country of migrants, in a way, people came here to look for a better life. It’s understandable, some of them look for a better opportunity, maybe to help the family, maybe they think in the Occident they can work, can get rich. Also, we shouldn’t forget that globalisation has arrived very strongly also there.

AKT: I love how you showed this at the beginning by mixing the cultural traditions with the little girls wearing these brightly colored plastic wigs.

MG: And they’re watching TikTok on their phones. They have a window on our world. It shows an image of our world, full of promise, full of light. But they don’t see what we see; what is behind that. There are a lot of the young who decide to take the road and risk their life to reach our country.

To fight a system of injustice, because they don’t understand why they see people, of the same age sometimes, arriving easily in their country, maybe for a holiday. And if they want to go to Europe, for instance, they can’t. There is an injustice that the movie tries to show in a non-didactic way, so that it’s a journey, an adventure.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Moussa (Moustapha Fall)
Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Moussa (Moustapha Fall)

AKT: Along the way there are classic figures. It starts with Sisko [Oumar Diaw] in Dakar, who is a bit like the Sea-Witch in The Little Mermaid and tells them what they see on TV is not real. Next comes the Wise Man, who tells them to go to the cemetery. You mentioned Pinocchio - the Cat and the Fox are the people they meet!

MG: Lucignolo [Candlewick] who says to him, you will sign autographs for white people! Come to the land of toys! It’s a sort of Lucignolo! It was strange because I discovered all those elements of Pinocchio by coincidence, working on the project. It was not on purpose.

AKT: Because it is human nature, these are our journeys.

MG: It’s a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, like Pinocchio. He starts as a boy and then becomes something else.

AKT: He becomes “captain” and discovers one of the central sentences: “I’m afraid, I’ll kill.” That is a fear many people should have, I think.

MG: Yeah, I would say there is also hope in the movie, because he remains innocent till the end. Although there are moments where he is desperate, moments of horror, but the lesson he gave to us, I think, is that he remained innocent and human till the very end. This is what I felt listening to their stories, because I made this movie with them. I wrote the script with them, I shot the movie with them.

Matteo Garrone: “The wounds of the soul of Seydou, because it’s a journey through Africa, but it’s also a journey of the soul.”
Matteo Garrone: “The wounds of the soul of Seydou, because it’s a journey through Africa, but it’s also a journey of the soul.”

They were in front of the camera; all the extras you see behind the actors are people that really made this odyssey. Also behind the monitor. What we were creating, recreating, was authentic. It was very important to be true and authentic to respect the people who are making this journey. We shouldn’t forget that 27,000 people have died making this journey. It is a movie that finally shows their point of view, that gives voice to them. Sometimes they are not believed when they tell the story.

AKT: The voice is taken away from them. I think Kieslowski said something to the effect of, documentaries being able to tell one thing, but when you tell a fictional story you can sometimes get closer to the truth. You can capture something the documentary doesn’t allow you to touch. I think that’s true here.

MG: Thank you! And sometimes, now you mention documentaries, when you film something that is really happening, you don’t have the problem of being believable. When you make fiction, when you rebuild reality, you sometimes have the problem with the story they tell you, because the story is so violent that it’s almost unbelievable and difficult to represent just the way they were. Often I have to take away some aspect of violence because it was almost too much. The reality is even worse.

Sometimes I prefer to evoke the violence by staying on the eyes of Seydou, instead of showing too much. I had the enormous privilege to be with people that made this epic journey, so they helped me on the details and sometimes on the acting. Because I felt I was the first audience, not the director. Because when I say, “action” sometimes something was happening that was completely unexpected because they start to live something that they lived in the past. I did not push them to do something. I created the moment and then they lived that moment like they did in the past.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Martin (Issaka Sawadogo) in prison
Seydou (Seydou Sarr) with Martin (Issaka Sawadogo) in prison

AKT: It’s tremendous. Also your editing, because, as you said about the violence, you push us to the edge and then pull back. And I have to say, I was very grateful for the moments of calm, because it’s so strong.

MG: It was important not to show only violence and the horror, because there are moments of human solidarity. When they are in very difficult situations, they create relationships. I didn’t want to lose the power of life, something that is really touching. The desire to reach their dreams, fight against death and the system of violence.

Seydou, I think, gives such humanity and his interpretation is pure and it goes straight to the heart of the audience. There are never moments where he wants to show that he’s a good actor. He’s always simple and true, he’s always inside the scene.

AKT: Absolutely. In the scenes with the builder, I don’t know if you give him a name, the one he builds the fountain with?

MG: Martin!

AKT: He disappears, and for seconds, you wonder if he is even real. Or is he maybe a spirit who came to help? It’s beautiful.

MG: It’s a father, you know. It’s a father in a way. I loved a lot this character. He arrives when you need a moment of humanity.

Seydou (Seydou Sarr), the captain on the boat
Seydou (Seydou Sarr), the captain on the boat

AKT: History comes to us viewers in waves in this film. Suddenly they are at a slave market. Despite what we saw, it comes as a shock, and then the builder arrives.

MG: Absolutely!

AKT: The moment in the desert, when they lose the first person on the truck, that is the point when everything changes.

MG: Absolutely. Because before, it looks like something that could maybe be easy. They used to tell me that in the beginning they had the feeling that to reach Italy could be very easy, because there are a lot of Cats and Foxes.

AKT: Lots of them!

MG: And then, they said exactly this to me: After a while, when it starts to go down and you go to prison, you start to feel that Europe is darkening, is turning black.

AKT: The first realisation is followed by the first of a number of beautiful sequences where we are in Seydou’s head.

MG: Beautiful, but at the same time also very sad, because we show the soul and the wounds. The wounds of the soul of Seydou, because it’s a journey through Africa, but it’s also a journey of the soul. One way to tell he is wounded, we decided to show with his dreams. So the fact that he couldn’t save the life of the woman, or the sense of guilt for the mother when he thinks he is going to die, the desire to tell the mother how he felt guilty for what he has done. This also comes from a true story they told me, because every frame of the movie is anchored in a true story.

The Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and the Fox (Massimo Ceccherini) conning Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) in Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio
The Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and the Fox (Massimo Ceccherini) conning Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) in Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio

So behind every frame there is someone who really lived it. For instance, all the last part is based on three stories that we put together. The story on the boat happened to a boy who was 15 at the time, called Amara Fofana [a collaborating writer on Io Capitano], who lives in Belgium now. Like in the movie, he succeeded to save the lives of 250 people.

Then after where the movie ends, he went to jail. He went to jail because he drove the boat, as if he were a trafficker of human beings! He went to jail for six months at the time; now you can go to jail for ten years for that. There are a lot of Me Capitans now, while we are talking, paying for this heroic act they do. While the real traffickers of human beings don’t risk their life on this kind of boat that can easily go down. It’s one of the many injustices.

AKT: It’s so clear that it’s another Cat and Fox move, that he isn’t made captain out of anybody’s kindness at this point. I also want to mention the brilliant cinematography that is guiding us through the story. Can you talk a bit about that?

MG: The Director of Photography was Paolo Carnera. It was the first movie that we have done together. I think he was really amazing because, as I did with all the heads of departments, I said, we have to make a beautiful film, but we have to be invisible. The audience has to forget that there is something artificial or that we show we are good.

If they see the frame has beauty, in a way that is narcissistic, so we have to be careful. So Paolo put himself in the service of the story and he worked carefully on the light, but tried always to be natural, to be simple. So be natural, but with beauty. Not a documentarist style, but not falling into complacency or smugness.

AKT: Similar to the actors - there is soul in the cinematography. Soul in the images and very much in both of the actors, Seydou and Moussa, as well. Thank you so much for this film!

MG: Thank you!

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