‘Me Captain’ Review: Matteo Garrone’s Migrant Epic Feels Like a Complete Odyssey Even Before Reaching the Shore

Though it’s become a convenient catch-all term for journalists covering the subject, the phrase “European migrant crisis” can’t help but leave a sour taste in the mouth — implying as it does that Europe, the destination for so many hard-up voyagers from variously ailing or hostile countries, is the disadvantaged party in all this. That bias carries through to the bulk of well-intended films on the matter, which tend to pick up migrants’ stories, however sympathetically, on European turf. Breaking from such Italian titles as Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea,” Emmanuele Crialese’s “Terraferma” and Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” Matteo Garrone’s stirring “Me Captain” instead takes Europe not as its setting but as a near-mythic objective, tracing one Senegalese teen’s vast journey from Dakar to Tripoli to overloaded migrant boat in gripping, sometimes agonizing detail.

For Garrone, this proves an energizing shift in focus, yielding his most robust, purely satisfying filmmaking since his international breakthrough with “Gomorrah” 15 years ago. Shorn of the splashy formal trickery that has marked such outings as his media satire “Reality” and the adult folklore of “Tale of Tales,” “Me Captain” is surprisingly classical in construction and style, wisely guiding our attention away from its sure directorial touch and toward the story at hand — pieced together by a small army of screenwriters and collaborating contributors from first-hand migrant accounts.

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Some will reasonably wonder if a predominantly Italian creative team is best qualified to portray this odyssey. “Me Captain” — its broken English-language title awkwardly intended to convey its young protagonist’s foreignness to Europe, which needs a rethink — does have its moments of inauthenticity, where Garrone’s western aesthetic and narrative instincts feel somewhat imposed on the material, which hardly aims for the political specificity or poetic complexity of a film like French-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s migrant ghost story “Atlantics.” But it’s hard not to be caught up in the film’s grand, honestly felt emotional sweep, and wherever the directorial perspective feels underqualified, that of Seydou Sarr, the film’s remarkable young Senegalese lead, makes up the difference.

A local TikTok star who also contributes multiple songs to the film’s vibrant Afropop soundtrack, Sarr has the natural, immediate screen magnetism necessary to carry a narrative that could risk becoming a litany of abuses and indignities visited upon the protagonist who shares his name. 16-year-old aspiring singer Seydou may be put through the wringer on a journey that takes in desert trekking, prison torture and slave labor, but he’s never reduced to the status of mere martyr or symbol — enlivened, in particular, by the devoted, jocular bond he shares with his cousin and fellow traveler Moussa (Moustapha Fall).

Seeing no future for themselves in an impoverished Dakar township, Seydou and Moussa have long planned to escape to Europe to realize their musical dreams and support their families from afar — though Seydou’s domineering mother (Khady Sy) won’t hear of it, while a local elder warns them that the Continent’s streets are lined with dead bodies. (An exaggeration, certainly, but Seydou is already shocked to learn that homelessness exists there at all.) And so they steal away without word, equipped with little more than patiently accumulated savings, soon to be swiftly depleted by a succession of scammers, extortionists and human traffickers with empty promises of safe passage.

The first such wad of cash goes on counterfeit Malian passports; the second on a truck ride across the Sahara that is abruptly terminated when Seydou, Moussa and their fellow passengers are abandoned in the dunes, left to walk to Libya in the care of an unreliable guide. Not everyone makes it, and Seydou struggles to adapt to survival-of-the-fittest tunnel vision. When the cousins are eventually separated, “Me Captain” switches to an age-old mode of melodrama, a search across months and miles sustained by hope alone. There’s an underlying romanticism to the film that counters the grittier, gorier realities of Seydou’s quest, and the scarred, hobbled, progressively exhausted physicality of Sarr’s performance. Certain moments of Hollywood-style kismet may strain belief, but they feel hard-earned just the same.

Not averse to the panoramic spectacle inherent in desert crossings or infinite expanses of ocean, though never overly prettifying Seydou’s ordeals either, Paolo Carnera’s muscular, color-rich lensing is in line with Garrone’s straightforwardly soulful storytelling. There’s little interest in hardscrabble vérité here: All the craft elements of “Me Captain” work toward the common goal of granting a distinguishing epic scale to a story that, in the real world, would merely be counted as a statistic, one of many composing an international crisis. “I’m the captain,” Seydou cries as his dream hoves into sight, an unabashed bit of pure movie dialogue that, whatever his fate to come, he deserves then and there.

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