Meet the Teenage Actors Who Make Italian Oscar Entry ‘Io Capitano’ So Powerful

Italian director Matteo Garrone’s “Io Capitano” is one of the most harrowing films in the international Oscar race, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that Garrone also directed the brutal 2008 classic “Gomorrah.” But his new film presents a torturous trip across the Sahara Desert and then a perilous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea on an overloaded boat, and it’s hard to watch because everything is shown from the perspective of two young refugees from Senegal who think they’re heading toward some kind of promised land in Europe.

It’s because of the two lead actors, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, that the audience is so shaken by the plight of these boys chasing a dream that may kill them. 

Sarr plays the lead character, Seydou, and Fall is his friend Moussa. Both were in their teens when they were cast in the film; Sarr had never acted before, while Fall had done some local theater. “My dream was soccer,” Sarr said in Wolof through a translator. “I wanted to be a soccer player, but my brother told me about this casting and I went, just casually.” 

“Io Capitano” (Cohen Media Group)

At the time, neither of them knew much about the refugee routes from northern Africa to Italy. “When I was in Senegal, I’d never known anything about this trip and never knew anybody who experienced it,” Sarr said. “But when we traveled to Morocco (for the shoot), we were able to meet the people who actually lived through it.”

“For me, it was a big pleasure and pride to represent what immigrants go through,” added Fall, who did most of the interview in the English he’d been studying since he was a child. “They risk their lives to have better living conditions. If I had to do it again, I would do it without any hesitation because I learned a lot of things during this trip.”

20 Days in Mariupol

The film was shot over three months in Africa and Italy, but Sarr said it felt like a year because the work was so difficult physically and emotionally. “The most touching part was when the lady (another passenger on the boat to Italy) was dying in my arms,” he said. “My dad died in my arms as well, and it was very difficult. When I was doing that scene, all I could think about was my father dying in my arms.”

Sarr ended up winning the Marcello Mastroianni Award, which is given to an emerging actor at the Venice Film Festival. So now that he’s accidentally found himself an acting career, does he want to do more? “If I get the possibility, I do,” he said. “The movie industry in Senegal is not that developed, so to have more opportunities we’ll probably have to go back and forth to Europe.”

Fall, though, has his sights set on a different destination. “My dream when I was young was to be here, in America,” said the actor who is also an artist and clothes designer. “That’s why I learned English. And if I have the possibility to stay here, I will stay.”

This story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Juliette Binoche (Jeff Vespa)

Da'Vine Joy Randolph

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