Tucked in the verdant hills of rural Brazil sits a humble house with a tin roof. A young man hammers a piece of wood onto a structure, his brown skin glistening under the oppressive heat of the sun. His family — a graying mother, two siblings — toil away, preparing a final meal for him. Later that day, the boy will leave his quiet home for the loud, chaotic streets of São Paulo. Along with three other boys, he will work at a metal shop. They’ll send money home to their families, and, once they have made enough, done enough, they will return and tend to their own dreams. Or so they believe.
7 Prisoners, the second feature from Brazilian American filmmaker Alexandre Moratto (and set for release on Netflix in November), is an aching coming-of-age story wrapped in a harrowing examination of human trafficking in Brazil. It is a truth that, for many, capitalism degrades the experience of living, forcing people to make undignified decisions in order to meet basic needs. Survival becomes an individual pursuit, and everyone loses. Through a pointed script and propulsive storytelling, Moratto smartly makes the stakes of living within such a perverse system clear.
A gripping and chilling reminder of capitalism’s failures.
The boys — Samuel (Bruno Rocha), Ezequiel (Vitor Julian), Isaque (Lucas Oranmian) and Mateus (Christian Malheiros) — arrive in São Paulo filled with energy and enthusiasm, cradling the few belongings that remind them where they came from. The main protagonist, Mateus, is entranced by the scenic change, how the green of the countryside turns into the gray of the city. When they arrive at the metal shop, their handler introduces them to their new boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro, of Westworld), a lanky, bearded white man. In an affectless tone, he welcomes his new employees, shows them around and teaches them how to strip copper from scrap wire and sort the metal.
As Mateus surveys the shop and processes their abysmal living conditions, an unsettling picture starts to form. The reality of their job differs dramatically from the promises that lured them to the city. They’re expected to work quickly and efficiently, and they sleep on hard mattresses in a bare room with two bunk beds. Luca does not mention pay, and when Mateus boldly asks about contracts, he brushes him off. The boys soon learn that they’re working to pay off a debt: an advance that Luca paid their families in exchange for their labor. Of course there are attempts to escape, and each failed plan costs them more. Luca and his henchman confiscate their phones, beat them, deny them showers, and threaten to kill their families.
Moratto renders the boys’ early days with a striking sensitivity. Their youth becomes more apparent with each conversation, their fantasies ranging from starting their own families to getting real jobs. We learn that most of them can’t read, one doesn’t even know his age, another doesn’t plan to return to his hometown, and another had never before slept on a bed. They banter with ease and form a brotherhood. These tender moments — made stronger because of the performers — reveal better than any heavy-handed monologue the few options the characters have without stripping them of their humanity.
As the weeks go by, Mateus begins to realize the extent of the human trafficking system. The police, the shopkeepers and even the neighbors all seem to work for or have a deal with Luca. Desperation pushes the central quartet to broker a deal with their boss: They will improve production and pay off their debts in six months, and after that they will be free.
7 Prisoners takes a turn at this point, focusing more on Mateus and the choices he makes as he forms a closer bond with Luca. Seeing Mateus’ influence on the other boys, Luca takes a keener interest in him. He gives him more responsibility and even brings him along on trips outside the shop. Mateus takes to his new authority, but not without some ambivalence. As he prospers — getting cleaner shirts and higher-quality meals and drinks — his friends languish. Malheiros, who starred in Moratto’s debut film, Socrates, is affecting as Mateus, taking great care to show, through dynamic facial expressions, his character’s increasing inner turmoil.
How Mateus wields his powerful position becomes the main point of tension in the film’s latter half. Seduced by the idea of his own freedom, Mateus begins to make seemingly tiny choices that sacrifice his integrity and betray his friends. Yet he derives no satisfaction from these decisions, nor from the liberation that he thinks is on the horizon. In fact, if there is any guiding lesson in 7 Prisoners, it is that freedom within capitalism is nothing more than an illusion.