Published: 10:01, April 19, 2024
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Migration sagas of marginalized people
By Amy Mullins
Io Capitano, directed by Matteo Garrone, written by Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Massimo Ceccherini, Andrea Tagliaferri. Starring Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall. Italy, 121 minutes, IIB. Opened April 18, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Absurdism and magical realism are some of the trickiest devices filmmakers can deploy when making a point about human nature. The fundamentally fantastical tone that comes from heightened comedy and flights of fancy can easily tip over into the simply ridiculous. Thankfully, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is a master of the absurd. Hence, his Cannes Jury Prize winner Fallen Leaves is expertly pitched to bittersweet rather than just bitter.

On the other hand, Italian director Matteo Garrone is known more for heightened, bleak crime dramas (Gomorrah and Dogman) rather than the magical touches one finds in his Venice Silver Lion winner Io Capitano. However, the traditional filmmaking choices Garrone makes in his latest help counterbalance the film’s flashes of whimsy.

Kaurismäki has made a rom-com in the only way he possibly could. After the downbeat conclusions of his previous “romances”, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl, Fallen Leaves pivots toward a relatively happy ending. The offbeat romance follows the strange evolution of the relationship between lonely supermarket staffer Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and alcoholic construction laborer Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). They first meet at what could be the drollest karaoke bar of all time, and go on to see a movie before a series of misadventures gets in their way.

In Io Capitano, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) sneak away from Dakar to make the long, dehumanizing trek over the Sahara, through Libya and across the Mediterranean to safety and prosperity. There’s a mythic quality to their journey. Europe, their destination, is like the holy grail,  and Seydou is saddled with more than a few quests along the way. To cope with the various tragedies he encounters, Seydou retreats into the folklore of home. Garrone injects the film with a touch of the supernatural, but only just. Io Capitano lifts from thriller conventions to get across the finish line.

Fallen Leaves, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Starring Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. Finland, 81 minutes, IIA. Opens April 25, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In their different ways, both Fallen Leaves and Io Capitano force us to consider the humanity of those who remain perpetually invisible. Kaurismäki has always sided with the economically stranded in his works, and Leaves is no different. Ansa and Holappa exist in the margins, desperate to connect with someone but unsure how to. Trapped by circumstance, they are wary of pulling themselves out of their ruts.

What is different, or perhaps more pronounced, this time around is the deadpan humor Kaurismäki has woven into his meticulously constructed plot. He seems to be better at it than the reigning king of intentionally stilted, hilarious performances, Yorgos Lanthimos.

Normally, Garrone trades in images that are slick and icy; grimy in ways we associate with crime thrillers. In Io Capitano, he and cinematographer Paolo Carnera (Adagio and Suburra) exploit the spaces Seydou passes through, rich with detail and warm in tone, but also perilous. The widescreen shots of Seydou and his fellow migrants crossing the desert and the sea capture just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how vulnerable. Garrone never loses sight of Seydou and Moussa as real people, trapped by similar economic circumstance as Ansa and Holappa, but also blinded by the promise of something better. In the end, Garrone’s epic road trip is tragically circular. Though Seydou gets a chance to be the captain, Italy is just another stop on the journey.

One more thing the films share? An unspoken plea to actually see people for what they are: people.