The promise of a better life is intoxicating and time-consuming, and thrives in locations of great economic disparity. “7 Prisoners,” set in Brazil, describes the limitations and lamentations of such a dream. There is a hierarchy of power that controls the economy and the workforce, and there is exploitation built into that hierarchy to keep that power at the top. Survival is easier said than done, and “7 Prisoners” is a full-blown thriller that wonders about the fragility of the human spirit.
In director Alexandre Moratto’s familiar but still engrossing film, 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) lives in rural Brazil with his mother and sister. They adored him, and he adored them. Her mother worked non-stop to support them, and the cost of living—groceries, electricity, phone cards—was high.
They left their wives, mothers, sisters, and other relatives to get into Gilson’s van and drive into town, and Moratto from the outset caught the disconnect between here and there. The countryside is serene yet empty, while the skyline of São Paolo—with its endless skyscrapers and gigantic spears of glass—is sparkling but unwelcoming, full of sharp edges and unnatural textures. It’s a sober visual introduction to the junkyard where Gilson keeps the four young men, which looks eerily like a prison. The dilapidated bunk beds where Mateus et al. is to sleep. Barbed wire lined the top of the junkyard wall. And the heavy metal gates clanged with brutal finality, an ominous sound that signaled the contract the youths thought they had gotten was not so generous.
Gone are the heartthrobs from “Westworld,” the dashing Castro in the film duo “Che”, the much-hated Paulo from “Lost,” and the gruesome Xerxes from the graphic novel adaptation “300.” He’s shaggily bearded, loose-legged, quick with slaps and casual with a gun. With his easy narcissism and manipulation of so many bullies, Luca tells the young men that they owe him for their trip, for an advance payment, for the crummy porridge they eat three times a day, for the rotten mattress they sleep on, for the gloves they have to wear. they are used when working with scrap metal, copper, and rubber in the junkyard. “You’re lucky I tracked them all down,” Luca said with fake concern, and the men had to pay for everything.
Why don’t they go? They tried. Why don’t they complain? They did. “7 Prisoners” is produced by Fernando Meirelles, from “City of God,” and Ramin Bahrani, from “The White Tiger,” and the two filmmakers have made in their films a similar story of top-down exploits and an impossible burden to bear. . the person at the bottom of the ladder. Moratto’s work is very much in conversation with his predecessors both in its overall narrative and in its protagonists Mateus and Luca. As the two men carefully circled around each other, their hostility turned into an unintentional form of respect and loyalty. Are they really that different?
The script, from Moratto and Thayná Mantesso, deliberately makes us uncomfortable with the answer. As “7 Prisoners” traverses the line of influence upwards, we meet more exploited workers, more brutal law enforcement, more new rich bosses, more people on the web who benefit from harassment and corruption. Editor Germano de Oliveira keeps the film light as we travel around Brazil, understand quid pro quo business relationships that transcend national boundaries, and edge with Luca on the filthy cliffs where he operates.
As the film investigates the human toll of so many broken promises and so many lives shattered, Malheiros’ expressive face becomes our anchor. “7 Prisoners” relies on it time and time again to reflect our emotional angst, and the film is so nuanced in its own stakes transformation that you might not notice the gravity of any of this until the very last sequence. “Give him protection and guide him on the path ahead,” Matthew’s relatives pray before he leaves, and the path that the “7 Prisoners” guides him is a humble journey in execution, a journey of devastating impact that slips and slides between the rigid boundaries of what is we consider freedom.
“7 Prisoners” opens in select theaters on November 5, and begins streaming on Netflix on November 11.