Brazilian-American filmmaker Alexandre Moratto turned several heads at this year’s Venice International Film Festival with the world premiere of his piercing new film “7 Prisoners”. Set mostly in the backstreets of São Paulo, Brazil, the film sees Moratto and his co-writer Thayna Mantesso delving into the darker corners of the city and country to tackle some real-world issues that should shake us to our cores.
“7 Prisoners” is a tough-minded movie with a very no-nonsense approach to its subject matter. At the same time, Moratto makes sure that the human element remains firmly front-and-center. He does so through the character of Mateus played by the charismatic Brazilian newcomer Christian Malheiros. Mateus’ story is a painful and (hopefully) infuriating eye-opener that pulls back the veil on the abhorrent practices of slave labor, sweatshops, and human trafficking. These are horrors we tend to turn a blind eye to, mainly because they all too often contribute to our comforts. Moratto sets out to wake us up to the realities of what’s happening in São Paulo and across the world.
The film opens in the rural Brazilian countryside where Mateus lives with his mother and two sisters. They are a loving group but they’ve had a hard life, doing their best to survive with what little they have. Mateus’ mother has labored to provide for her children, but years of low-paying farmwork has taken its toll. So 18-year-old Mateus jumps at the opportunity to go the city and do some contract work to support his family. In the film’s most tender and sobering scenes, Mateus’ mother gives him a new shirt for his trip. It’s hardly anything fancy, but its worth a month’s groceries to them. A van comes by to pick up Mateus and, along with three other area boys, he’s taken five hours away to São Paulo.
Moratto does a great job putting us in the shoes of these four young men. Not only by showing us where they’re from, but also during the van ride through the city. Their wide-eyed excitement as they’re driven through the bustling São Paulo sets us up for the unsettling reality that awaits them.
The driver drops them off at an inner-city scrapyard ran by a man named Luca (played by an excellent Rodrigo Santoro). The shady and evasive Luca gets the boys settled and gives them money to go out and enjoy themselves before their first day of work. But when he collects all of their IDs the next morning, we know this isn’t going to go the way the boys anticipated. In fact it’s much worse. Mateus and his friends find themselves caught in the gears of a modern-day slave system, one that’s driven and protected by people with enormous power.
Moratto’s pacing is near perfect, shrewdly moving the story from point to point while pausing at just the right moments to uncoil the crumbling emotions of his characters. Mateus is especially compelling, caught in a no-win situation and eventually forced to make impossible decisions that will have painful repercussions regardless of what he chooses. To stress the point of his film, Moratto slyly gives us the occasional shot of the city’s bustling streets full of citizens freely walking about their normal days. It offers a sharp contrast to the cruel forced labor happening right under their noses.
With a bold and clear-eyed perspective, “7 Prisoners” offers a brutally honest challenge to a society’s apathy towards some well-documented abuses. Alexandre Moratto does a good job pulling us into his dark and ugly world that’s made all the more troubling by the fact that it’s very, very real. Great performances from Santoro and Malheiros anchor this revealing feature that’s not only a good pickup for Netflix, but a great opportunity for an important story to be told. “7 Prisoners” is now streaming on Netflix.