‘Io Capitano’ evokes shared humanity at Stanford in Florence screening

After a morning class about Florentine squares and architecture, the Stanford in Florence cohort convened in a movie theater to watch the Oscar nominated film “Io Capitano” (2023), directed by Matteo Garrone. We had spent the previous six weeks enjoying rich cultural experiences, attending courses in silk-paneled rooms overlooking the Arno river and savoring Italy’s gastronomic delights. “Io Capitano” brought quite the contrast to our leisurely study-abroad lifestyle. It showed us just how out of touch we were with the lived experiences of people on the move around the world. 

Stanford hosted this film screening as part of Black History Month in Florence. The film follows the migration route of two Senegalese teenagers, Seydou and Moussa, who journey from West Africa to Italy in search of a better life. While the film includes some fictional elements, it is based on true accounts of migrant experiences and spares no details of the appalling conditions people brave along Mediterranean routes. 

Garrone primarily filmed “Io Capitano” using point of view shots, a technique that enables viewers to enter a character’s perspective. It offers access to details that a documentary film might omit and helps the audience feel like they are journeying alongside the boys. The decision to use a hand-held camera enhances this effect, creating shakier scenes that give viewers a sense of immediacy, almost as if they are moving and breathing with the characters. I had previously watched several documentaries about migration routes, but “Io Capitano” captured moments that I had never before seen on screen. The brutality of Libyan torture chambers and intrusive body searches for valuables particularly gripped me. 

These realistic scenes had a powerful emotional effect on me. As I watched the film, some thoughts kept running through my mind: “Someone is living this reality right now. While I sit comfortably in a movie theater, someone my age is sitting in prison and fearing for their life, is thirsty in the desert, is being robbed or enduring torture and forced labor.” 

Between these painful moments, comforting fantasies filmed in vibrant colors relieve viewers from the harrowing scenes that they witness on screen — for example, a woman who otherwise would have died of thirst flies through the Sahara desert while holding the protagonist’s hand. Scenes like these underscore the power of human imagination to render life’s harsh realities more bearable and to rise beyond the physical and mental constraints that bring about suffering in our world. 

After the screening, we spoke with Abdou Salam and Abega, two men who had taken a similar migration route from West Africa to Italy, where they arrived in 2017. They, alongside Suzie Alexander, are founders and members of the Cetona-based cultural association Loop-La-Loop that welcomes migrant people to Italy through recreational activities aimed at restoring dignity, supporting aspirations and encouraging freedom of expression. A member of the audience asked whether the film’s depiction of migration routes was accurate. They both confirmed that the scenes were authentic but explained that their personal experiences with migration had been much worse. Traveling as adults, they suffered more brutal treatment in Libyan prisons and attempted to cross the Mediterranean multiple times before succeeding.

Viewers might be puzzled about why people continue to attempt such migration routes despite knowing the dangers that they entail. Often, unbearable life circumstances such as war and persecution at home drive these decisions. The case of “Io Capitano” illustrates another motivation — the power of someone’s desire for a better life. During the Q&A session, one man shared that he still would have traveled to Italy, even after the difficulties of his migration experience, while the other said he would not have attempted the journey if he knew then what he knows now. 

The film does not simply elicit feelings of pity. Rather, it is a hopeful modern odyssey about two young boys taking life into their own hands. They not only embark on a geographic quest but also complete the universal journey from childhood to adulthood and experience the moral awakening that all humans must face. They are innovative, determined and assume large responsibilities. In the midst of their heart-breaking encounters with human evil, Seydou and Moussa display a genuine concern for the well-being of those around them. Their instinctive efforts to care for one another and for strangers contrast the moral attitudes of many adult characters who instead treat human lives as means for profit or as worthless, disposable goods. 

Constant exposure to headlines about migration have removed the shock of what is happening at borders around the world for many news outlet audiences. We most often hear about thousands of people entering the country and overwhelming its borders. Rarely do we reflect on who these people are — on the fact that they have made difficult choices and sacrifices and that they too desire a safe, happy life. Instead, the topic of immigration has become a tool for politicians to craft identities and build platforms.

Our immigration system is broken because we do not think about people on the move as human beings. Art steps in to remind us of our own humanity at times like this, when politicians, institutions, law enforcement and media are failing to respect human dignity. More than anything, art invites us to empathize, reframe our preconceptions and take another’s perspective. 

Migration is not a crisis. On the contrary, it is a very normal part of human history. The true crisis is our society’s numbness to human rights violations. So often, we shy away from discomfort. We seek remedies and distractions to make any unsightly pains around us disappear. We shut our eyes and delude ourselves about reality.

Let us actively seek moments of discomfort, so that we might harness the shock and horror that we feel at the state of the world and reconsider our individual responsibilities. The indignation that we experience after watching films like “Io Capitano” should not be a momentary feeling that quickly fades with our next distraction. Instead, this story should remind viewers of their duty to treat other human beings as human beings, beginning in their own communities.

Perhaps the prestige of this Oscar nomination will finally force elites to confront the shameful sufferings of this world rather than ease deeper into the leisurely comforts at their disposal and blind themselves from reality.

My academic exposure and personal engagement with the topic of immigration have given me strong opinions about our human responsibility to protect and defend the rights of migrants and refugees, but I am keenly aware that many people do not share my views. Throughout the weeks after the screening, I have reflected on how art rises above the political and bridges human hearts in ways that empirical measurements, academic papers and discussions cannot. When experiencing a work of art, the focus does not lie in being right, making the most convincing argument or proving another person wrong. Instead, masterful works, such as “Io Capitano,” allow us to process contentious issues and challenging emotions that might otherwise succumb to defensive, unproductive conversations. At a time when levels of political disagreement have surpassed reasonable friction, re-centering our attention to art might inch us closer to the common human understanding our democracy so desperately needs.