This image provided by Archimede shows a scene from the...

This image provided by Archimede shows a scene from the film "lo Capitano." Credit: AP/Greta De Lazzaris

MARRAKECH, Morocco — Italian director Matteo Garrone hopes that the way his film “Io Capitano” frames the journey taken by Senegalese teenagers to Europe as an adventure, albeit a harrowing one, will make it more compelling to audiences regardless of politics.

The film, which played over the weekend at the Marrakech International Film Festival, accompanies aspiring musicians Seydou and Moussa as they venture from Dakar through Niger and Libya and voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy. The naive pair — unknowns whom Garrone found and cast in Senegal — witness mass death in the Sahara, scams and torture beyond their expectations.

The film has had box office success and rave reviews in Italy since its release in September, and it was screened for Pope Francis. “Io Capitano” comes as Europe, particularly Italy, reckons with an increasing number of migrants arriving on its southern shores — 151,000 so far in 2023. An estimated 1,453 are dead or missing, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency.

Italian Premier Georgia Meloni has called migration the biggest challenge of her first year in office. Her government has worked to strike agreements with Albania to house asylum-seekers with applications under review and a broad “migration assistance” accord with Tunisia intended to prevent smuggling and Mediterranean crossings.

Though Garrone acknowledges that those who choose to see the film in theaters may already be sympathetic to migrants who take great risks to reach the Europe they perceive as a promised land, he said in an interview with The Associated Press that showing the film in schools to teenagers who may not choose to see it otherwise had been particularly powerful.

“It’s very accessible for young people because it’s the journey of the hero and an odyssey,” he said. “The structure is not complicated. They come thinking they might go to sleep, but then they see it's an adventure.”

“Adventure” — a term used for years by West African migrants themselves that portrays them as more than victims of circumstance — doesn't do the film's narrative justice, however. The plot is largely based on the life of script consultant Mamadou Kouassi, an Ivorian immigrant organizer living in the Italian city of Caserta.

The jury of the Marrakech International Film Festival pose for...

The jury of the Marrakech International Film Festival pose for photos on the red carpet on the opening ceremony, in Morocco, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. Credit: AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

The film shows the two cousins Seydou and Moussa leaving their home without alerting their parents or knowing what to expect. They pay smugglers who falsely promise safe passage, bribe police officers threatening to jail them and call home as members of Libyan mafias running non-governmental detention centers extort them under the threat of torture.

In Libya, the cousins watch as migrants are burned and hung in uncomfortable positions. Seydou at one point is sold into slavery to a Libyan man who agrees to free him after he builds a wall and fountain at a desert compound.

“There are more people who have died in desert that no one mentions,” Kouassi said, contrasting the Sahara with the Mediterranean, where international agencies more regularly report figures for the dead and missing.

“This makes a point to show a truth that hasn't been told about the desert and the people who've lost their lives there, in Libyan prisons or in slavery," he added.

A view of the venue where the Marrakech International Film...

A view of the venue where the Marrakech International Film Festival is being held, ahead of the opening ceremony in Marrakech, Morocco, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. International movie stars arrive in Morocco on Friday to kick off one of the Arab world's largest film festivals amid a shadow cast by Israel's latest war with Hamas and protests that have swept the region for almost two months. Credit: AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

The film's subject is familiar to those who follow migration news in Europe and North Africa. The film's structure mirrors many journalistic and cinematic depictions of migrant narratives. But "Io Capitano” shows no interest in documentary or cinema vérité-style storytelling. Garrone's shots of the Mediterranean and the Sahara depict them in beautifully panoramic splendor rather than as landscapes of death and emptiness.

Many scenes set in the Sahara were shot in Casablanca and the desert surrounding Erfoud, Morocco. Garrone said he relied heavily on migrants in Rabat and Casablanca who worked on the film as extras. They helped consult on scenes about crossing the Sahara and about Libya's detention centers.

“What was really important was to show a part of the journey that we usually don’t see," he said. “We know about people dying in the desert, but we usually only know about numbers. Behind these numbers, there are human beings very much like us.”

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