7 Prisoners (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Exploitation at the bottom of a city

Brazilian film “7 Prisoners”, which was released on Netflix a few weeks ago, is a darkly vivid and harrowing examination of labor exploitation. As phlegmatically observing one young hero’ grim struggle to survive in the middle of one big city in Brazil, this powerful film often chills and saddens us a lot, and we come to reflect more on the big and heartless economic system which will continue to exploit not only him but also many others out there.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Mateus (Christian Malheiros), an 18-year-old lad who is going to leave his small countryside hometown for earning more money for his mother and younger siblings. Along with several other young men including a close friend of his, he will be taken to São Paulo by a local broker who is supposed to get them a job in the city, and they are all hopeful about coming back to their hometown with enough money for them and their families within a short time.

However, once they eventually arrive in a junkyard located somewhere in São Paulo, their hope is gradually broken as they find themselves becoming sort of modern slaves under the owner of the junkyard. Although Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) does not look that bad at first, this seedy dude soon gives some harsh dose of reality to Mateus and other lads, and Mateus and his fellow workers are reminded again and again of how much they are trapped in this circumstance in many aspects. Besides not getting paid at all, they are never allowed to leave the junkyard just because of a considerable amount of debt forced upon them from the beginning, and there is no one to help around them, let alone those local policemen who have been in Luca’s pocket. Besides, Luca knows about their families, and he will have their families get hurt or threatened if they ever attempt to run away.

As the most sensible one in the group, Mateus tries to cope with this daunting circumstance as much as he can. It does not take much time for this smart lad to become the de factor foremen of the group, and Luca comes to rely on him more especially after Mateus shows Luca that he and his fellow workers can work more under his conduct. After testing Mateus a bit more, Luca lets Mateus handle several other things in his shabby business, and Mateus’ status accordingly becomes a bit better than before while his colleagues are not so pleased about what is going on between him and Luca.

Mateus naturally becomes conflicted as willingly doing whatever Luca demands him to do, and his conflict grows more as seeing more of what Luca has been doing in the name of survival and business. There is a chilling scene where Mateus witnesses Luca casually handling his another exploitative business, and we are more chilled when Mateus is later tasked with doing something to make himself more distant to his colleagues, who now come to regard him with more disgust and contempt.

Yes, he could simply choose to say no to Luca, but Mateus only finds himself more hesitating while letting himself pushed to do more by Luca as usual, and the screenplay by director/co-producer/co-writer Alexandre Moratto and Thayná Mantesso steadily builds up the moral tension surrounding its hero. At one point later in the film, Mateus comes to have an unexpected moment when he must make a choice between Luca and his colleagues, and we are not so surprised by his eventual decision which eventually leads to one very bitter moment around the end of the story.

While mostly confined within a small background inhabited by Mateus and several other characters in the story, the movie, which is co-produced by Ramin Bahrani and Fernando Meirelles, also gives a wider view on the system which has constantly exploited them. During one particular scene where Luca and Mateus drop by the residence of some affluent local politician, it turns out that Luca is also more or less than another cog in the system, and we come to discern more of how vast and corrupt the system really is – and how easily Mateus is tempted to grab any opportunity for survival and benefit as conforming to the system.

Even when reaching to its logical conclusion, the movie keeps holding our attention, and Moratto, who previously made a feature film debut with “Socrates” (2018), draws good performances from his main cast members. While Christian Malheiros, who was the lead actor of “Socrates”, ably conveys to us his character’s development along the story, Rodrigo Santoro, who has been mainly known for his several notable Hollywood films including, yes, “300” (2007), is equally engaging while never making any excuse on his character’s deplorable sides, and several other cast members including Bruno Rocha, Vitor Julian, and Lucas Oranmian are also solid in their respective supporting roles.

On the whole, “7 Prisoners” is definitely not something you can casually see on Sunday afternoon, but it is still a very compelling work to be appreciated for its skillful storytelling coupled with sharp social observation. Like Meirelles’s “City of God” (2002) and Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” (2007), the movie looks deep into the life and struggle of people at the bottom of the society with considerable compassion and empathy, and it will leave an indelible impression on you once it is over. In short, this is one of the more interesting movies I saw during this year, and you should give it a chance as soon possible.

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