Today’s “Around the World with Netflix” outing is a gritty, suspenseful Brazilian drama about human trafficking and what the trafficked do at the end of that ugly road.
Alexandre Moratto’s “7 Prisoners” takes us for a ride — the same one the title characters take — from the impoverished, dead-end lives that await them in the countryside to the promise of “The Big City,” Sao Paolo. They aren’t kidnapped. Mateus (Christian Malheiros) and the others in his group gladly get on board the minivan whose driver promised them work that will make them “rich and prosperous,” with cash enough for them to send back home to help their families.
The smiling driver gives a little advance to each family as he makes his pick ups. And at the end of the line, after they’ve ogled their first sight of the Sao Paolo, boasted to each other about where they’ll live and what they’ll seek in terms of education and career, that driver gets his payoff.
One is illiterate, a “hick” to the others. Another’s a hothead, and Mateus and another wonder about “contracts” and why they need to surrender their ID to their new boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro of “300” and TV’s “Westworld”).
The early days — stripping copper wiring for resale, breaking down abandoned cars and separating metals for recycling — are grueling. Their living conditions are Spartan, their meals meager. And their pay? They haven’t seen a centavo.
Hotheaded Isaque (Lucas Oranmian) fumes, but Mateus, the smartest of the lot, is the mouthiest. He complains. And that’s when all of them, from illiterate Ezequiel (Vitor Julian) to panicky Samuel (Buno Roca), get the hard “facts.”
Luca whips out a notebook, filled with billed figures for everything “we did for you (in Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles). I did you all a favor. Now you OWE me.”
Mateus threatens to “tell the police.” But the police, they discover, are in on it. Plotting their escape, they take their shot. But when that first attempt fails, what will they do?”
Moratto, a Brazilian-American filmmaker from the same North Carolina film school as David Gordon Green and Ramin Bahrani, has us experience this grueling ordeal through the eyes of Mateus.
Malheiros, who was in Moratto’s earlier drama “Socrates,” makes our hero a poker-faced realist with the eye for the long game. After planning their first attempt and hearing the threats to their family from Luca and the corrupt cops who recapture the one guy to get away, he tries to make himself more useful, to ingratiate himself in with the boss.
Luca sees he’s the smartest of the lot and Santoro lets us see the wheels turning as he tempts his smartest pupil with better jobs, and more rewards.
Can Mateus keep the peace with the others long enough to figure out another escape? How deep down the rabbit hole of corruption will he allow himself to go?
“7 Prisoners” gets us caught up in its moral quandary and the hard mathematics of survival, and is just long enough, with enough forks in the road Mateus faces, to put us in his shoes.
As far as texture goes and ambition goes, this isn’t “City of God” and Moratto isn’t Fernando Meirelles. Not yet, anyway. But this unblinking, consequential and taut film about one of the most unpleasant facts of Emerging Economies life announces him as a filmmaker to watch and a dramatic with a great eye and ear for conflict, physical and moral.
Rating: R for language, some violence and a sexual reference
Cast: Christian Malheiros, Rodrigo Santoro, Lucas Oranmian, Vitor Julian and Bruno Rocha.
Credits: Directed by Alexandre Moratto, scripted by Thayná Mantesso and Alexandre Moratto. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33.