Matteo Garrone on His African Odyssey ‘Io Capitano’: ‘I’m Italian. I’m White. This Is Not My World: There Was a Risk of Getting It Wrong’

Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, who is a two-time Cannes jury prizewinner, with “Gomorrah” in 2008 and “Reality” in 2012, is in competition at the Venice Film Festival for the first time with his immigration-themed drama “Io Capitano.”

Shot in Senegal, Italy and Morocco with a cast of largely non-professional actors, “Io Capitano” narrates the Homeric journey of two young African men, Seydou and Moussa, who decide to leave Dakar to reach Europe. Garrone produced via his own company, Archimede, with RAI Cinema chief Paolo Del Brocco and Belgium’s Tarantula Film on board as a co-producer. The drama is backed by Pathé, which is handling world sales through Pathé International.

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Garrone spoke to Variety about what drew him to make a film depicting what he calls “the only real epic voyage we have today.” The voyage of immigrants from Africa “who cross through the desert, get put in prison camps, and then have to submit to smugglers to reach their destination by sea.”

The young protagonists of “Io Capitano” are poor, but they have food on the table. What drives them to risk their lives and go through total hell to try and reach Europe?

They see Europe through social media like TikTok and what they get is a glossy version of it. So it’s very human and understandable that there is a percentage of young Africans who are willing to risk their lives to go there. Also, they don’t understand why their French or Italian peers can travel freely to Africa for a holiday while the only way for them to get to Europe is to risk their lives. There is a deep injustice in this.

Why did you decide to tackle this topic?

It took me a while to tackle this story after I heard a story that inspired me. I kept putting it off. I’m Italian, I’m white. This is not my world. There was a risk of getting it wrong, or of seeming like I was exploiting it. I had a lot of thoughts of this type going through my head. And then at a certain point it’s as though it was the film that chose me. I am afraid of travelling, I don’t like to fly, I get seasick. And I wound up doing things I never thought I would do. But I did them because at a certain point I realized that I got like a calling. I had the feeling that there was a part of this voyage that was unknown in the Western imagination. Of course there are people who know – or at least should know – that there is a voyage through the desert, and detention camps in Libia, and a whole system behind the smugglers. But it’s a whole world that had not been told visually. That’s what drove me to place the camera from their angle. To learn more about it. To live the experience with them.

What were some of the main challenges you faced from a narrative standpoint?

I always believed it was very important to keep the story simple and real. Not an imitation of reality, but a truth that goes beyond realism, meaning that you believe in what you see. Above all, we had to be invisible. I did not want the viewer to perceive the behind-the-scenes work. I didn’t want virtuoso camera work or self-indulgent stylistic flourishes. That can happen with a landscape like this, and faces like this. Instead we tried to work in such a way that the spectator can get into the story and forget about all the rest. The key thing is that this movie has to be their [the immigrants] point of view. It’s a reverse shot. I wanted to change the angle.

How much research did you do before making this movie?

We did a lot of research. There are videos of tortures, of dead people in the desert, there is plenty of material. The screenplay was written with several young people who lived that experience. It was sort of like making a collage. I took the parts of several journeys that I found most interesting and I blended then together. It’s a mix of stories, all based on real life experiences that we turned into a single long voyage.

And as I understand it that process also continued on set.

Yes. On set I constantly verified the screenplay with a young man who had gone through the experience of crossing the desert and been in the prison camps who was always next to me. He also helped me to direct the extras, most of whom have also actually lived what they call “the adventure.”

It’s a bit like when I was shooting “Gomorrah” in places where I was in contact with an existing [criminal] world. I often had people belonging to that world who became part of the film, or in any case helped me. There were similar dynamics at play here. Of course I was always following my personal vision of this reality, but people who had lived the adventure were always behind the monitor and I checked their reactions closely to make sure the story we were creating was in synch with them. My greatest fear from the start was to enter a culture that wasn’t my own and become trapped in a series of cliches, like the ones we see when foreign directors come to Italy.

How was it working with the great cinematographer Paolo Carnera?

Paolo was a pillar of this film, both artistically and from a human standpoint. This has been a complex film in terms of the production, I am also a producer on it. There were moments of great stress during the shoot where we had to take great risks. It’s also an action adventure movie, as well as a road movie and a coming-of-age movie. Artistically, our main concern was for the photography to be beautiful but invisible. Very curated lighting that at the same time had to seem real. We paid great attention to not fall in the trap of narcissism.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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