Alexandre Moratto’s “7 Prisoners” opens on a happy family dinner in rural Brazil. Mateus (Christian Malheiros) is leaving home for a work opportunity in São Paulo. He’s excited and hopeful for a future where he can send money back to his mom and live comfortably. The next morning, he jumps into a van with other young men. They each have their own hopes and dreams of what this new opportunity will bring them. They arrive at a seedy scrap yard headed by Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), a tough boss who soon shows his uglier side. As the young men begin to ask questions about missing pay or their contracts, they start to lose their freedom, their cell phones are taken away, their families back home are threatened, and they find themselves locked inside a cell in the scrap yard. Luca tells them they will have to work for free until they pay off the debts they incurred while traveling here, essentially trapping them into a human trafficking scheme. Now Mateus must figure out how to survive this nightmare to get back home to his family.
Moratto, who shares the writing credit with Thayná Mantesso, creates a tense situation packed with emotional and mental mind games. One false move could mean the end of Mateus, the other young men in his group, or their families. Even before things really begin to escalate, there are already hints of tension between the young men, planting the seeds for future battles.
However, the main source of conflict is between Mateus and Luca, his dreadful boss and human trafficker. The power dynamics between them are always fraught and shifting, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. Luca begins trusting Mateus with small tasks that eventually lead to a promotion. He no longer has to suffer the same way the other guys do, and he sees a potential way out by working with his enemy. The movie sets up a moral dilemma for Mateus, does he suffer in solidarity with the others or join the human trafficking trade in the hopes of reaching his family and ensuring their safety?
With “7 Prisoners,” Moratto proves himself as a director of many talents. He can film action sequences, keep up the story’s suspense and never lose the film’s emotional core. He reunited with his star Malheiros and co-writer Mantesso from his feature debut “Socrates,” a Brazilian drama about a young man coming to terms with the death of his mother. In “7 Prisoners,” the plot is more complex, the dangers heightened, and its main character has both internal and external pressures to get through. The tightly wound human drama increases to a boiling point that simmers all the way to the credits.
Cinematographer João Gabriel de Queiroz, another “Socrates” alum, completes the drama with his style. He and Moratto show the lush greens of the opening scenes’ countryside scenes as it soon gives way to the big city’s grey and tan grimy dullness. There’s a claustrophobic sensibility to the jail, its cramped quarters, and dingy workspace. But the most harrowing detail is when Luca’s guards point out that although neverending skyscrapers surround the young men, there’s no one who will help them. The neighbors won’t intervene, and the police are on Luca’s payroll. And when you’re truly left to your own devices, as Mateus is in “7 Prisoners,” the movie answers the question, “how far will you go to survive?” [B+]