7 Prisoners is a well-rounded, tense second feature from director Alexandre Moratto. Produced by renowned Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, known for his iconic, Rio-set film City of God and whose latest film The Two Popes was also on Netflix. But it was through the film’s other producer, Ramin Bahrani, that 7 Prisoners landed a deal at Netflix. It’s likely that Moratto’s film could be Brazil’s Oscar entry for 2022’s upcoming ceremony.
Mateus (Christian Malheiros) is a young Brazilian man, whose family are in desperate need of monetary support. He takes it upon himself to accept a job offer that would mean he would have to leave for Sao Paulo. As soon as Mateus and his three fellow workers arrive at the prison-like, derelict junkyard they know that they’ve been duped. It turns out, the honest job that he was offered was a sham to steal hard-working laborers in desperate need and make them work, almost, for free.
At its core, 7 Prisoners is a tough, hardened tale about morality. The film’s story is fascinating, it deals with modern-day slavery and the moral decisions needed to make to stay alive. Moratto presents two options for his characters, break out and escape or be compliant. The obvious option is to break out, but a spanner is thrown in the works, as if they do, their families will be hurt and most likely killed. The latter option of being compliant is the path that Mateus, the film’s lead, takes which is the smart, logical avenue due to the threat hanging over his family. However, it’s a morally ambiguous choice as his actions are no better than those controlling them, despite doing it for the right reason.
The eighteen-year-old’s freedom comes at a cost, which is shown incredibly well through Christian Malheiros’ sympathetic, nuanced performance. Without saying a word, the spectator instantly and intuitively knows what he’s thinking. That’s a testament to Malheiros whose character is forced to rally against his so-called friends and work alongside his captor Luca as he gains his trust. But in the midst of this, he becomes marked as a trafficker as he becomes known as an associate of Luca rather than as a prisoner.
Moratto’s sophomore effort is a tough, endlessly suspenseful watch. It’s shot almost entirely handheld, helping to emphasize the unstable nature of the film’s characters. It’s made abundantly clear from the get-go that anything could happen. Despite the rugged nature of its filmmaking, there are many meaningful scenes that are subtly poetic, hinting at the greater place that these forgotten people hold in society. For instance, without their work, the city’s power cables would be non-existent. The only slight flaw to the film is that some of the shots come across as a bit unpolished, but that’s only evident a couple of times throughout the film.
It would be criminal to overlook Rodrigo Santoro’s dastardly, yet utterly engaging performance as the prisoner’s captor, Luca. His character starts out as extremely cruel, but as the film progresses, Moratto forces Luca to open up and show some humanity. It’s made clear that anyone, in Brazil, could end up being Luca, even Mateus. It’s a matter of survival that causes monsters to be born, rather than being born inherently bad. There is a complexity to 7 Prisoners’ moral compass, which proves to be endlessly fascinating as the tension-filled story paces towards its conclusion.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release 7 Prisoners in November.