I must admit I haven’t followed Matteo Garrone’s career closely since he burst onto the world stage with Gomorrah. This grueling but captivating film reaffirms his place in the front ranks of filmmakers, as he puts us in lockstep with its two protagonists: teenage cousins in Dakar who have a burning desire to go to Italy and find a better life. They are played by newcomers Seydou Sarr (who was singled out as Best Promising Actor at the Venice Film Festival) and Moustapha Fall. A man in their Senegalese village who arranges such illicit trips tries to discourage them but they cannot be deterred; they have been planning and saving for six months. 

Whatever you might imagine about their journey as migrants is nothing compared to the painful reality they face. Their naïveté makes them sitting ducks for every jackal whose path they cross. A truck deposits them in the middle of the Sahara desert where they are forced to continue on foot, leaving others in their group behind. There is no discussion of conscience but we can see the pain in young Sarr’s eyes as he is forced to abandon a woman who reminds him of his own mother.

The trip is arduous but completely credible, from the torture they suffer in a Libyan prison to the unexpected kindness of a fellow captive who takes Sarr along on a building assignment and teaches him a trade as they construct a wall, then an elaborate tiled fountain.

This is storytelling at its most visceral, painted on a broad canvas that reminded me of a saga by David Lean. Garrone and his screenwriting partners (Massimo Ceccherini, Massimo Gaudioso, Andrea Tagliaferri) interviewed people who had undergone this experience, which accounts for the feeling of authenticity in every scene. Paolo Carnera’s cinematography enhances the feeling that we are experiencing this journey right alongside the star-crossed cousins, not viewing it from a safe distance. In a year when all five Oscar contenders for International Film are so worthy, this one captured my heart.

P.S. Matteo Garrone is appearing with his film at several theaters in Los Angeles this weekend:

Friday, February 23rd
Landmark Sunset 5

Q+A with Director Matteo Garrone

Saturday, February 24th
Landmark Sunset 5

Q+A with Director Matteo Garrone

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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