An imprisoned teen tries to escape in 7 Prisoners, Netflix’s powerful addition to the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons Extra category. But 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) isn’t in a conventional prison: he’s working at a junkyard in Brazil’s São Paulo when his new boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), locks him and his co-workers into the complex, playing mind games and demanding long hours. While some try to run for it, Mateus develops a strategy which involves impressing the boss and becoming his right hand man. But will the plan work, or will he be sucked into the other side of human trafficking?
It’s a gripping premise from director Alexandre Moratto, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thayná Mantesso. The writers take time to establish the characters, introducing Mateus as an ambitious young man who’s keen to send money home to his family in the country, before heading onto bigger things. He’s also principled and kind, subtly noting that his workmates can’t read or write, and trying to help them.
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But this natural leader will have tough choices to make in a tense drama with elements of a thriller. Much of the tension comes in the scenes with Luca. Santoro puts in a layered performance as the man who’s clearly the villain, but who is also revealed to be loving and supportive of his own family. There are several co-incidental parallels with the Venice competition film La Caja/The Box, as this shows the cold-blooded decisions Luca has made in order to look after his own. This is a dog-eat-dog world, and there is apparently no limit to the lengths Luca will go to in order to survive.
While the setting is very specific — and dark — some of the dynamics in 7 Prisoners have a universal relatability. The boss is using his power to intimidate the workers, and becomes both threatened and opportunistic when he discovers one of his staff is smarter than he is. When this guy gets promoted, jealousy is rife and loyalties are torn.
Malheiros is excellent as Mateus, a sympathetic hero who also has some common ground with Tim Robbins’ character in The Shawshank Redemption. He’s a clever, wrongly imprisoned man who must strategize and play the long game in order to have a hope of escape. The perils that could await Mateus are worse, of course: Luca carries a gun and knows exactly where all his enslaved workers’ families live. He manages to keep them in line with the threat of destroying the one thing everyone cares about: family. Money and food may be necessities, but family provides the motivation.
Brazilian-American filmmaker Moratto proved his instinctive understanding of Brazil’s low-income communities with the terrific Socrates, which was shortlisted for Brazil’s official Academy Award entry. 7 Prisoners establishes him firmly as a talented filmmaker telling important stories from the region — and it’s as engaging as it is depressingly, brutally educational.