Jane Campion and Matteo Garrone Talk Oscar-Nominated Immigration Epic ‘Io Capitano’: ‘It Was a Sort of Odyssey’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Jane Campion is championing Matteo Garrone‘s “Io Capitano,” which is Italy’s Oscar-nominated contender for best international feature film.

The movie narrates the Homeric journey of two two Senegalese teenagers, Seydou and Moussa, who decide to leave Dakar to reach Europe in pursuit of a better life. It realistically depicts their plight through the pitfalls of the desert, the horrors of detention centers in Libya and the dangers of the sea.

In Variety‘s review, critic Guy Lodge called “Io Capitano” the director’s “most robust, purely satisfying filmmaking since [his] international breakthrough with ‘Gomorrah’ 15 years ago.” The drama, which at the Venice Film Festival won best director and best emerging actor for its co-star Seydou Sarr is the strongest Italian Oscar contender in recent memory. The film, which also won best European film at San Sebastian, will be released in the U.S. on Feb. 23 by Cohen Media Group.

Below are excerpts from a conversation between Campion and Garrone about the various complexities he faced in making “Io Capitano.” Watch the full video above.

Jane Campion: This is a very beloved film, and I think anyone that sees it just can’t help but connect to these lead protagonists in your film. Particularly Seydou, you know, who is the the Capitano at the center of your story. His sincerity and compassion, his performance is so heart-opening, it’s beautiful. It’s really amazing. And so I’ve got so many questions about how you met these boys. Without them, I can’t imagine what the film would be like and I’m sure you knew that. You were writing on their shoulders, really.

Matteo Garrone: When you find an actor like Seydou it’s a gift. A bit lucky because he comes from a family of actors. His mother and sister were actresses in this small town, close to Dakar, but his dream was becoming a soccer player, so he didn’t want to go to the casting call. His mother went to pick him up while he was playing soccer, to force him to attend the casting call, and finally he came. And he was so pure, so authentic. So human. 

Campion: Yes. And pure was a really good word.

Garrone: Yeah, innocent. I did a lot of casting calls also in Europe: in Paris, in Italy, but they were completely different. It was important for the script that it had to be someone who didn’t know about Europe, who dreams about Europe like the character that we wrote. Exactly the same way. They were dreaming about discovering this world. The actors I chose had never left Senegal, and I decided to not give them the script. So they didn’t know what was going to happen and they didn’t know if they were going to succeed in arriving in Europe or not. 

Campion:  Oh my God! And you did that to actually build up attention to tell us what’s gonna happen. 

Garrone: They didn’t know, because there was a subtle bond between the character and the person. And I always shot in chronological order. So from Scene 1 up until the end, the actor could follow the journey of his character. I told them [what was going to happen] day by day.

Campion: Where did the idea for this kind of film begin? What made me really want to see this film was like — OK, it’s a film about immigration, and it’s very hard to get. It’s a subject that I’m really interested in, but it’s hard to get the inside story on it.

Garrone: That’s true.

Campion: It’s never told from the point of view – very successfully – of the people actually planning to make the crossing. And what I really liked about the story, too, is it’s not told from the point of view like, “Oh, look, if they don’t go they’re gonna die.” It’s more like, you know, they’re gonna go and maybe die on the way. So it’s not earnest. It’s a true kind of horror adventure story with a lot of heart and really interesting adventures on the way. It was a sort of odyssey.

Garrone: Absolutely. it took time to decide to make this movie because it was really difficult and also because it was not my culture. So I was worried to enter into a [narrative] code that is not mine, and to fall into dangerous stereotypes. So it took years. And then at the end, I decided to make a reverse shot of what we are used to seeing. Yesterday, 60 people died in the Mediterranean. And we always see the image of the boat, and always from our point of view. But what we’re missing is their point of view. The reverse shot. The other side. 

Campion: What you say is true. It’s not from your culture, but it is from your culture as well because, of course, these people are coming to Italy. And it’s kind of important to learn about that.

Garrone: Yeah, and also we are Italians, we are migrants, so it talks about everybody. It’s universal, the idea of traveling to look for a better life. It’s an archetype. 

The text of this conversation has been edited for clarity.

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