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Join a Senegalese teen on a harrowing journey in this Oscar-nominated film

Seydou (Seydou Sarr, in gray) crosses the desert in <em>Io Capitano.</em>
Greta De Lazzaris
Cohen Media Group
Seydou (Seydou Sarr, in gray) crosses the desert in Io Capitano.

One of the interesting things about this year's Academy Awards race for best international feature is that in three of the five nominated movies, the filmmakers are working in cultures and languages different from their own.

In Perfect Days, the German director Wim Wenders tells a gently whimsical story of a man cleaning public toilets in present-day Tokyo. In The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer, who's English, immerses us in the chilling day-to-day reality of a Nazi household in 1940s German-occupied Poland.

The captivating new drama Io Capitano has the most restless and adventurous spirit of all. Directed by the Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, it tells the story of Seydou, a 16-year-old who leaves his home in Senegal in search of a better life in Europe.

It begins in the city of Dakar, where Seydou, played by a terrific Senegalese newcomer named Seydou Sarr, lives with his mother and younger siblings. Life isn't easy and money is tight, but there's still a joyful and sustaining sense of community, as we see from a vibrant early scene in which Seydou plays the drums while his mother dances before a crowd.

But Seydou has been dreaming of a new life for a while. Despite his mom's protests and warnings about the dangers that lie ahead, he yearns to see the world — and earn more money to support his family.

And so Seydou sets out with his cousin, Moussa, played by Moustapha Fall, on a trek that will take them through Mali and Niger to Libya, where they hope to catch a boat to Italy. The two cousins have been patiently saving up money for months, but their expenses mount quickly as they purchase false passports, bribe cops to avoid getting arrested and pay for an extremely bumpy ride through the Sahara Desert. At one point, the cousins must complete the desert journey on foot with several travelers, not all of whom survive — and Seydou realizes, for the first time, that he himself may not live to see his destination.

Many more horrors await, including a terrifying stint in a Libyan prison and a stretch of forced labor at a private home. But while the movie is harrowing, it also has an enchanted fable-like quality that I resisted at first, before finally surrendering to. Garrone is an erratic but gifted filmmaker with a superb eye and an ability to straddle both gritty realism and surreal fantasy. He came to international prominence in 2008 with Gomorrah, a brutally unsentimental panorama of organized crime in present-day Italy. But then in 2015, he made Tale of Tales, a fantastical compendium of stories about ogres, witches and sea monsters.

In a strange way, Io Capitano splits the difference between these two modes. This is a grueling portrait of a migrant's journey, but it also unfolds with the epic classicism of a hero's odyssey. In one audacious, dreamlike sequence, Seydou, trying to help an older woman who's collapsed from exhaustion in the desert, imagines her magically levitating alongside him. The scene works not just because of its shimmering visual beauty, juxtaposing the woman's green dress against the golden sands, but also because of what it reveals about Seydou's deeply compassionate spirit.

Sarr, a musician making his acting debut, gives a wonderfully open-hearted performance. And it rises to a new pitch of emotional intensity in the movie's closing stretch, when the meaning of the title, which translates as Me Captain, becomes clear. There's something poignant about the way Garrone chooses to approach his home country, Italy, through an outsider's eyes. Seydou's journey may be long and difficult, but cinema, Io Capitano reminds us, is a medium of thrillingly open borders.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.