“I Captain”: come, let’s turn our gaze around! A conversation with director Matteo Garrone


By John

He never says “I”, always “we”. And when he says “I have” he immediately corrects: “We have.” Matteo Garrone repeatedly underlines the choral nature of his beautiful film, «Io Capitano», Silver Lion in Venice (where the protagonist Seydou Sarr also won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for young emerging actors), Italy’s top five candidate for the Oscar for best international film.

A film written (with Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso and Andrea Tagliaferri) based on many true stories, which is filming throughout Italy – and on Thursday the director will talk about it in a double meeting with spectators in Messina (swill be at the Iris Multiplex at 5.15pm and at 6.15pm at the Apollo Multiplex, where the meeting with the public, organized together with the Spazio Arte Association, will be introduced by Loredana Polizzi. Subsequently Garrone will also be present at the Cinema Ariston in Catania at 8.30 pm, at the end of the screening at 6.30 pm).

A film where the two “lines” of Garrone’s production, the story of the crudest reality and the fairy tale (which also has a black heart of fear, of trauma to be overcome, of danger to be avoided), intertwine in the “odyssey ” (here understood in its most ancient sense: adventure journey, full of monsters, of course, but also of knowledge of oneself and the world) of Seydou and Moussa, very young Senegalese men who decide to do the most dangerous thing of our times: the long journey inside Africa to then be able to sail towards Europe, the “land of toys” (every reference to “Pinocchio” and its history of formation and transformation is intensely desired). The theme of our times, of our governments. Difficult, thorny theme, which dealing with truth and art is difficult, arduous, wonderful.

You said it clearly: in this film you change the perspective, reverse the point of view, technically “do a reverse shot” by telling the first part of a journey about which we seem, up here in Europe, to know everything, but about which we know only distant and theoretical things, pure numbers. And also choosing protagonists who are not fleeing from war or hunger, and not staging any storm at sea: just as many reversals of the usual, let’s say. By now you have met many spectators around Italy: is your vision shared?
«The audience is vast, broad, transversal, of all ages. Everyone experiences personal emotions that are then combined with the story. I can certainly say that in my opinion the strength of the film lies precisely in the ability of the actors, especially Seydou, to manage to create a relationship of empathy with the audience, who relive the experience of the journey first hand. Cinema is linked to the possibility of living an experience beyond pure “information” (we know that you die at sea or in the desert): this film makes you take the journey, it makes you live it. You enter into an intimate relationship with the protagonist and you identify with it.”

Along the journey the protagonists will experience violence and pain: all the documented stages of the chain of evil that are the journeys of migrants through Africa. The beauty of things like compassion, caring for others, solidarity, responsibility (the whole extraordinary final sequence – which I believe will remain in the history of cinema) shine like diamonds. Is this also a reversal of perspective?
«I would define it as a sense of humanity that goes beyond, a profound sense that resists despite all the violence that the characters suffer, but managing to remain human. There is a sense of hope and light in them that remains, and that I wanted to tell. It is part of the stories I have collected, and this great humanity exists: being able to remain human even in the hardest moments. It’s one of the things that struck me the most and that I admired the most.”

The writing work was above all research work, at its basis there are many true stories. How is truth transformed into narration in cinema, but in such a way that it remains true?
«It’s a complicated job (smiles). It’s like painting a picture. I tried to put my gaze and my experience at the service of their stories, also through my sensitivity, not by imposing my Western gaze, but by letting it be their voice. Obviously with a fusion: in my opinion art is always linked to exchanges, to contaminations. I entered their culture, they trusted me and we did it together. It is a work that was created with collective work, day by day, and each of us gave our feelings: already on the set I was watching their reactions, they were also the first spectators of the film for me.”

You, correctly, are not interested, indeed you shy away from any political controversy, but you are aware that you are dealing with an incandescent subject, for our world, and your gaze is however intensely ethical, through the truth you present. Which is not the “truth” of the work of denunciation, but is the severe and ethical truth of the fairy tale, if anything. What is your relationship, as a director, with the politics and ethics of narration?
«I would talk about an epic story: it starts from them who are the true ones today, the only bearers of a contemporary epic. Their stories are, among other things, great adventure novels, of heroes, and this gives this film various reading levels. I think of the many young people who see it, perhaps coming to it full of prejudices, and instead are struck by the fact that the protagonists are peers living an adventure. And here the information arrives through an adventurous story, they are not pre-packaged theses or didactic explanations. This helps young people to reflect through a journey, an experience within a familiar structure, that of the adventure story. The political and ethical element helps us understand that it is not right that there are young people in the world who have to risk their lives to travel. People who, like them, have lives, dreams, families: simple things, but not to be taken for granted. They help young people to take responsibility and have a different perspective on such a dramatic issue.”

Let’s talk about magic. Someone spoke for her of “magical neorealism”, for that way of being within the ethical tension, and the reality that presses, but with moments of very high dreamlike poetry, in a – I would say perfect – balance. But perhaps in addition to the openly “magical” scenes there are other things: the colors that fade as the protagonists move away from their origin, nature, the desert or the sea, always vast and unlimited, without borders, nature instead claustrophobic of human, teeming, very dense places. On the other hand, you frequent fairy tales and the crudest reality, creating your own very special style (Pinocchio and Gomorrah, and what is fantasy?): How did you dose this ingredient, in this story, how would you like it to arrive?
«It’s something that has to do with sensations, intuitions that you have while making the film. Things that happen on set. At the start I wanted, we wanted to tell this story with a style that was not only documentary, but different. However, those dreamlike moments also had a dramaturgical reason, they served to recount the wounds of the protagonist’s soul. It is a training journey: Seydou leaves as a boy and arrives as a man, his soul is wounded, and to cinematically narrate these wounds we used these “daydreams”. This part seems to lighten up, but it is extremely dramatic. Talk about the traumas he has just suffered.”
At the Oscars you represent Italy, but you will also represent all the stories that are in the film…
«The awards serve, in my opinion, to bring the public closer to the film: this is the most important thing. The two prizes in Venice were very important, then Pope Francis wanted to accompany us in some way too: all things that helped to overcome mistrust and prejudices linked to such a delicate topic. I hope that the film continues its journey and goes as far as possible. In December it will be released in Senegal and then in other African countries, and it will be interesting to see how it is received. When I go on tour I often find African kids in the audience who have made the trip, I call them on stage and get them to talk. I feel calm and with a clear conscience: we got them to talk.”