Near the beginning of “7 Prisoners,” the illuminated high-rise skyline of São Paulo draws murmurs of admiration from a group of young rural Brazilians as a minivan ferries them into the city for the first time in their lives. They’ve never personally known their world to be so big, though within minutes of Brazilian-American director Alexandre Moratto’s accomplished, socially conscious thriller, it’ll grow smaller than they could ever have imagined. As migrant labor turns swiftly and all too plausibly into modern-day slavery, vivid, in-the-moment terror turns to more sustained, sweaty moral panic: The only way out of this prison, it seems, is to become a jailer yourself.
Moratto’s first film “Socrates,” a tender-tough, street-level study of a gay teen surviving homelessness in São Paulo, won him the Someone to Watch Award at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards, and the more polished, pumped-up “7 Prisoners” seemingly hits the screen with something to prove: not just talent, which was evident enough already, but a more mainstream sensibility. Job done: Produced by Fernando Meirelles and long-term mentor Ramin Bahrani, Moratto’s sophomore feature may not back down on his humanitarian concerns over poverty and exploitation in Brazil’s favelas, but it’s plain to see why Netflix hopped aboard this efficiently gripping, just-thoughtful-enough genre piece as its global distributor.
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Still, if “7 Prisoners” sees Moratto stepping into a larger spotlight, it’s heartening to see him bringing a crucial past collaborator with him: Christian Malheiros, the young Brazilian newcomer whose mature, emotionally intuitive performance was so integral to the success of “Socrates,” and who once more assumes leading-man duties here with sturdy grace. Moratto and co-writer Thayna Mantesso give him fewer notes to play, however. Their story this time depends more on types than richly dimensional characters for its power: Malheiros’ naturally soulful presence fills in a fair few blank spaces in 18-year-old protagonist Mateus, the alpha male in a doting household of women, who must leave the family smallholding to provide for his mother and sisters with a big-city job.
Spirits are high when he and a few other boys from his village hop into a São Paulo-bound shuttle, having all secured menial work at the same metal scrapyard on the city limits. The audience is unlikely to share the youths’ surprise when, upon arrival, working and living conditions aren’t remotely what they were promised: They’re crammed into a filthy, cell-like dormitory, meals are an afterthought and their shifty new boss Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) is evasive on the subject of payment. When they raise their concerns, the situation worsens, fully exposing the trafficking trap into which they’ve stepped: The boys are stripped of their phones, locked into their dorm when not working under strict surveillance, and have their wages suspended until the vast alleged debt of their living expenses is cleared.
While his fellow prisoners variously weep, rage and make futile escape attempts, Mateus — who, having passed eighth grade, is regarded as the brains of the group — stoically comes to the realization that the only way out may be compliance, and eventual complicity, with Luca’s corruption. As his cooperation gradually earns him privileges and promotion above the rest of the group, Mateus wrestles silently with his conscience: Is he climbing the ladder in the hope of pulling the others up with it, or just protecting himself in an otherwise hopeless scenario? Malheiros’ internally wounded performance makes the burden of these decisions clear in his heavy gait and deliberate, hesitant body language. The right course of action is never signposted.
Elsewhere, “7 Prisoners” goes a little too easy on its audience, even as João Gabriel De Queiroz’s grimy, shadowed camerawork and the film’s nippy, jagged editing hold us at a cool distance. Though Santoro’s performance is compellingly psychotic, Luca remains a surface-level villain, simple to root against even as the film hints at a similarly family-minded, come-from-nothing backstory to Mateus. Mateus’ peers, meanwhile, aren’t much defined beyond a single characteristic at a time — hot-headed, anxious, and so on — and thus don’t really compete with the protagonist for our sympathies, even as feelings of betrayal arise.
It’s here where Moratto’s film, heart-quickening as it is, wants for the character-based subtlety and sensitivity of his debut. It immerses us so deeply in the “what would you do” aspect of its storytelling that what they do, and why, gets shorter shrift. Still, “7 Prisoners’ unfolds satisfyingly, precisely by not offering us complete satisfaction or certainty. The question hovers of whether Mateus can ever escape his prison altogether, or merely into one with more comfortable furniture.
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