Brazilian filmmaker Alexandre Moratto creates a highly effective, if uneven, picture on the devastating working conditions in his homeland, capturing both the dreams crushed by unlawful but prevalent worker exploitation and the unlikely, and often heartless, opportunities that arise as a result.
Releasing on Netflix this November, 7 Prisoners is an accessible and engaging film that works best in its dramatic moments showcasing the harrowing results of tricking laborers into leaving their homes and chasing a dream that never materializes. Less effective, and much less convincing, is the film’s second half that centers on a specific transformation in character dynamics – one that causes a shift in narrative until the final credits roll.
From the countryside to São Paulo, a group of four Brazilian young men embark on a hard journey to work in the city, helping support their families back home and hoping that, while supposedly temporary, that such a job would allow them to lead better lives when it’s time to head back home. Naively excited about what’s to come, the four men discuss their future aspirations: whether to marry the ones they love, build bigger homes, or finally receive the education they were long deprived of.
But things don’t turn out the way they were supposed to. Upon arrival to the junkyard, where the men are supposed to extract copper and collect it in chunks for it to be then traded and sold, they discover they’ve been set up: the advance, hefty payments their family received have turned into steep debts they would be required to pay. Once the realization sinks of what that could possibly mean, they realize they’re essentially going to work with no pay – and no rights. And when they try to complain, things quickly take darker, unexpected turns.
Moratto is at his strongest in capturing the men’s experiences as they navigate impossible hurdles, inhumane conditions and an unshakable feeling of disappointment, finding themselves trapped in unimaginable situations and becoming living examples of modern-day slavery in Brazil.
The film further expands on this, showing to great detail the unspeakable treatment the men receive, particularly when they attempt to revolt. There simply is no return home, no exit from what is closer to a prison than a workplace and an everlasting sense of looming danger as hopes and dreams quickly evaporate day by day, becoming a thing of the past. In capturing the transition from expectation to reality, the film is at its most effective. The most intimate scenes of the men’s filthy bedroom, chaotic junkyard and the small joys of enjoying a meal or a bath as though it’s an earned reward rather than a basic right, ground the film and create a strong sense of rooting for the characters as they never lose hope of finding the way back home.
The film shifts gears with a second act that features a dramatic transformation for a central character. While not completely unexpected, the film somewhat loses focus of the main plot, shifting from a shared struggle to a singular opportunity for the protagonist and its ramifications on the group. At once interesting, this twist soon wears out its welcome, resulting in an ending that does not completely satisfy and feels inconsistent with what the film sets out to be.
Bottom line: Uneven but ultimately engaging, 7 Prisoners is an important reminder that modern-day slavery still exists in parts of the world. Behind the glamorous skyscrapers and towers are prison-like cells where millions of workers suffer in silence while the world turns a blind eye.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. 7 Prisoners will be released in select theaters and then globally on Netflix in November.
Photo: Aline Arruda/Netflix