Review by Sean Boelman
Brazilian filmmaker Alexandre Moratto made a splash on the independent film scene with his micro-budget debut Socrates, so it was exciting to see what he would do with a bit more money on his hands. His sophomore feature 7 Prisoners is about as gripping as they come, an extraordinary social drama with a timely theme and great character work.
The film tells the story of a young man who accepts a live-in job at a junkyard in São Paulo for an exploitative boss, unintentionally getting wrapped up in the world of human trafficking. It’s a story that specifically pertains to the practices of one culture, but the script by Moratto and Thayná Mantesso is sharply written in a way that is quite thought-provoking.
Clocking in at just over ninety minutes, this definitely feels extremely rushed. The film struggles with trying to do too many things at once, which can prevent some of the emotional beats from having much of a lingering emotional impact. That said, the short runtime and density of suspenseful moments also allows the film to hold the audience’s interest without any issue.
There is a lot to be said in the film about the Brazilian class system, but some of this message is lost when other subplots are introduced. Everything which the film has to say is interesting, but in trying to address so many different ways in which the lower-class is taken advantage of in his country, Moratto can’t address any of them with much depth.
The protagonist in the film has an extremely well-written arc. The “wolf in sheep’s clothing” trope is common in all forms of literature, but it was interesting to see that spun on its head here into being a “sheep in wolf’s clothing”. The rest of the characters in the film, particularly the antagonists, are nowhere near as substantial.
Christian Malheiros, who also played the lead in Moratto’s debut, does an extraordinary job in the lead role. It’s unexpected to see someone with so few screen credits deliver a performance that is this nuanced and complex. More seasoned actor Rodrigo Santoro is also brilliant, giving some career-best work with his role.
On a technical level, Moratto’s low-budget roots definitely show here, as it is still very economically-shot. He builds suspense not through flashy action, but tension between the characters and short bursts of brutality. The way in which the film utilizes its confined location to create a feeling of entrapment is also quite effective.
7 Prisoners is a really impressive follow-up for Alexandre Moratto, cementing him as one of the most impressive new voices in filmmaking in recent memory. Those who are looking for a lean ninety-minute thriller will be satisfied by this offering.
7 Prisoners hits theaters on November 5 and Netflix on November 11.