You would expect a film about human trafficking and modern-day slavery to be devastating, and this Brazilian drama duly horrifies. But it doesn’t evolve in quite the direction you might anticipate which, strictly from a film point of view, makes it much more interesting than your standard social realism. With a Brechtian approach that compels the viewer to question both their own ethical assumptions and tacit complicity in a worldwide consumerist culture that exploits people all over the planet, 7 Prisoners is deeply uncomfortable but utterly compelling viewing.
The film reteams director Alexandre Moratto, making his second feature-length work after Sócrates in 2018 with young actor Christian Malheiros, who starred as the title character. This time Malheiros plays Mateus, a young man from Brazil’s deep inland farm country, who has accepted a job offer in São Paulo doing hard menial work, for significant enough money that it will make a real difference to his mother and siblings’ quality of life back home. But when Mateus and three other young men from the region arrive at the squalid junkyard where they will spend their days salvaging copper and scrap metal it soon becomes clear they’ve all been duped. First their passports are confiscated, and then absurd amounts for travel and accommodation expenses are deducted from the pay they were promised.
They are soon joined by three others (making the seven of the title) and each development is like a station of the cross that the men must visit on their journey of suffering at the hands of Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), the overseer who runs the junkyard. But Luca is himself just a middle manager in a larger pyramid of exploitation, one built off the labour of men like Mateus and his comrades – but also warehouses full of women working sewing machines, some of whom are snatched off the factory floor for sex work. Of course, Mateus starts scheming with his colleagues about how to escape, but it soon becomes clear that would only endanger his family back home. His only way out of the compound is to get on Luca’s good side and hope some opportunity will present itself: the sliver of hope slaves have clung to for thousands of years.
Moratto and his cinematographer João Gabriel de Queiroz dance discreetly around the performers, letting the actors drive the drama forward in a way that’s authentic without being gratuitously violent or self-consciously gritty. If anything, the respect for the complexity and dignity of all its characters is palpable throughout.
• 7 Prisoners is released on 22 October in cinemas and on 1 November on Netflix.