Eighteen-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) leaves his peaceful home and loving family in the countryside to search for work in São Paulo. He needs to work and the promise of greater options in the big city is tough to ignore, especially when a suave recruiter named Gilson (Maurício de Barros) offers him and three other young men in his village such a seemingly perfect opportunity. It is, of course, too good to be true, and soon the quartet of men are stuck in a junkyard that bears more than a passing resemblance to a prison. Their new boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), is less a prison guard than a slaver, and soon, they find themselves in an inescapable cycle of cruelty and exploitation.
It seems wearily inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between 7 Prisoners, the newest drama from rising star Alexandre Moratto, and City of God, perhaps the defining film of 21st century Brazilian cinema (that multi-award-winning drama’s director, Fernando Meirelles, is on producing duties here, alongside Ramin Bahrani of The White Tiger fame.) Like City of God, this is a story of the crushing reality of poverty and its inescapable pain. That movie’s tagline was famously, ‘If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you,’ which certainly feels in line with 7 Prisoners’s familiar but no less brutal themes.
Mateus and his friends leave behind everything, including families and partners, for the glimmer of a brighter future the city, a near-mythical place, seems to hold. Life will be tough in São Paulo but it has to be better than what they have, right? What they get is a contract so unfair and iron-clad that it’s tantamount to modern-day slavery. They sleep on rotten mattresses, their food is barely edible, and their new boss demands that they pay him in advance for travel costs and basic safety tools.
Luca is the sort of casually charming sleazeball that you could easily imagine in an American gangster movie, all slimy smiles and with lies that roll off the tongue like they’re his first language. Rodrigo Santoro is probably best known for heartthrob roles in English-language films like Love, Actually or his cartoonishly evil queer-coded villain Xerxes in 300. With a shaggy beard and trigger-happy fingers, his performance as Luca is sharply realized and familiarly terrifying. Yet there is a sliver of humanity in there, one eerily attuned to understanding what will make or break his prisoners. He’s a villain, sure, but he’s also a rich one, and that makes him the hero to so many in this world.
Mateus and the others do try to escape, and the first act often feels like a prison break drama. Christian Malheiros, an undeniable star in the making whose hugely expressive face makes him alternately seem childlike and wise beyond his years, plays Mateus in the first act as a boy constantly looking for the exit. He’s industrious and desperate but there’s real ambition there as well, which Luca quickly zeroes in on. Luca, along with the filmmakers, is keenly aware that one of the most effective tools in strengthening the poverty cycle is by allowing the exploited to wield the whip against their own. In Mateus, Luca sees someone he can mentor, a future mini-me who can usher in a new era of business by replicating the tools that have worked so well for him: strip your ‘workers’ of everything, placate them with crumbs they soon become dependent on, then threaten their removal if they don’t work harder. You think life is bad now? It could always be worse. We can make it worse. After all, even Luca has to answer to somebody else, someone higher in the endless pecking order of profit. Mateus’s conflicted feelings are palpable in every scene. Is he negotiating with his jailer to ensure better terms for his friends or is he secretly more interested in climbing the ladder alone? Sadly, his peers don’t get much to do and are mostly defined by an easy-to-remember characteristic: one is a hot-head, another is panicky, and they’re all scared.
Moratto and his cinematographer João Gabriel de Queiroz do a solid job of conveying the seemingly ceaseless prison of the junkyards without distracting from the actors and their naturalistic performances. The seeming effortlessness of Malheiros, who can convey the most aching of micro-expressions, is occasionally hindered by the more on-the-nose aspects of the narrative. Then again, there’s nothing especially subtle about poverty or its machinations. This is as gruelling a film as you would expect, and indeed need it to be, and it mercifully avoids any such romanticizing of lower-class life in a way that is creepily common in this genre.
There’s an efficiency to 7 Prisoners that makes it, if not an easy watch, then certainly an effective one. Poverty traumatizes and it takes a hell of a lot of powerful people to make that system work as well as it does. This is how it’s meant to work, with the vast majority of its participants, seldom willing ones, never making their way beyond the dirt.
7 Prisoners is now available to watch on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix