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Review: 7 Prisoners – “An eye-opening and vital experience”

Photo credit: Aline Arruda/Netflix

History is awash with examples involving the exploitation of human beings.  Yet sadly, we still need not look any further than the present to see examples of daily atrocities.  Anything but an easy watch, director Alexandre Moratto (2018’s Socrates) crafts a compelling look into modern-day slavery and human trafficking with his essential second feature film, 7 Prisoners.

Mateus (Christian Malheiros, who also starred in Socrates) lives with his mom and two sisters in the countryside of  Brazil.  They are a close-knit, working-class family, and the young man worries about his elderly mother and how he can provide a better life for her and his siblings.  He, therefore, accepts a job in São Paulo, a five-hour drive away.  Before he leaves, his mom buys him a new shirt.  “This is worth a month of groceries,” Mateus protests, but the man who arrives to transport him to the city hands his mom an envelope full of cash, promises of riches yet to come courtesy of Mateus’ hard work.

Mateus arrives, alongside three other young men, at a scrapyard where they are expected to sort metal and strip copper wiring.  Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) keeps a close watch over them, gun leisurely tucked in the back of his belt.  He’s been working this job a while, and he’s used to the workers wanting to escape.  The four young men gradually realize that their big city dreams are a fantasy. They are trapped in a new nightmare, prisoners in this junkyard, forced to work long hours and live in horrible conditions.  What they thought was a temporary way to provide for their families is permanent.  Mateus, the only one of them with education, initially resists his fate but then realizes the only way out is through – or up.  But for any semblance of freedom, Mateus will have to question his morals and decide just what his humanity is worth.

Writing alongside Thayná Mantesso, Alexandre Moratto crafts a tight script that continually propels the plot and advances Mateus’ journey.  Visualizing this world through Mateus’ perspective also means the audience is placed in the same moral dilemmas as we learn new information through his eyes.  Strong performances by Malheiros and Santoro, as well as the supporting cast, mean that despite the ethically devoid choices that are made, empathy for all of them and their situation is still present.  After all, Luca may seem the worst of the bunch, but even he has a boss, and even he is a victim of a society that had always positioned him to fail.

Director Moratto was inspired to create 7 Prisoners after watching a news report in his native Brazil about the tens of thousands of these coerced workers, lured from their homes with promises of wealth.  With 2018 Socrates he explored ideas around grief, and poverty as well as homophobia.  This second feature proves Moratto a smart and assured voice in Brazilian filmmaking, one that isn’t going to shy away from telling the toughest stories.  It’s clear from the way 7 Prisoners is made, that the director feels a personal responsibility to the subject matter.  Says Moratto, “To look the other way would be me not doing my job.”

7 Prisoners is one of those films you may revere, yet not be able to view a second time.  Moratto has told a story that while important, is also horrific as we see people treated as commodities.  “Are there a lot of them?” Mateus asks Luca after he fully realizes the extent of the human trafficking in which he’s become involved.  “Enough to keep the city up and running,” he replies, simultaneously answering why this occurs in the first place.  There is an entire economy based upon this modern-day slave trade that results in enough impact for society to turn a blind eye.  It preys upon the economically depressed and their desires for a better way of life, only to abuse their aspirations.  Yet 7 Prisoners is also a film about morality and humanity, and it asks us to pose to ourselves the question of what we would do in Mateus’ shoes – for some likely an eye-opening and vital experience.

7 Prisoners will be released in theatres on November 5th and begin streaming on Netflix November 11th.

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