Four rural Brazilian boys are promised the world in exchange for a 400-odd-kilometre minibus ride to São Paulo and a new job at the end of it. Money to send to their struggling families, the chance at a bigger, better life than the one of toil they’re being induced to leave behind. What could go wrong?
Well, as Brazilian-American director Alexandre Moratto’s canny fusion of social realist drama and urban thriller charts – and the title makes spoilerifically clear – the answer is pretty much everything.
As with Moratto’s last foray into São Paulo’s underbelly, Sócrates, charismatic young actor Christian Malheiros is front and centre here. As 18-year-old Mateus, he’s the quickest to twig that the junkyard they’re working for isn’t the land of milk and honey they’ve been promised. The bullying, disdainful Mr Luca (Love Actually’s Rodrigo Santoro, bringing nuance as the villain) tells them that their salary is going to working off their debts. The minibus ride was no freebie.
Soon, there are guns in full view, the gate is locked and the four are warned that the police will exact reprisals on the families of any escapees. Such is this corrupt ecosystem they’ve been drawn into.
7 Prisoners plays like a jailyard drama, especially in a tense middle stretch captured via some jittery camerawork that sets Mateus off on his own path. The boys’ dorm is a grimy cell, the scrapyard is walled-off from the city around, and Mateus soons morphs from the quartet’s de facto leader into a reluctant errand boy for Luca. The more his old mates turn against him, the more he’s forced to look to their jailer for protection.
That’s one of the paradoxes Moratto and co-writer Thayná Mantesso are keen to explore: This world’s only use for the impressive, self-taught Mateus’s smarts is in perpetuating a cycle of oppression that keeps his own friends down. Escaping from poverty in Brazil, the film suggests, is a zero-sum game.
Mateu’s rise allows Moratto to introduce a wider subplot around a people trafficking racket that is kept a little at arm’s length. None of the three trafficked workers introduced late in the piece get much meaningful screentime, when a more ambitious film might have had more to say about these concentric circles of oppression. What does a poor Brazilian kid think about a poor immigrant navigating the same hell – and vice versa? 7 Prisoners never really offers an answer.
But it does work well as a taut, claustrophobic story that occasionally peeks over its own fences at Brazil’s wider social ills. If the pay-off aims for the gut and misses, the journey to that point provides a searing microcosm of a corrupt and degrading system.
7 Prisoners premiered at the Venice Film Festival.