Review: Gripping performances fuel gritty, real-world struggle of ‘7 Prisoners’

A man and a teenage boy walk away from a van in the movie “7 Prisoners.”
Rodrigo Santoro, left, and Christian Malheiros in the movie “7 Prisoners.”
(Aline Arruda / Netflix)

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At the start of writer-director Alexandre Moratto’s social realist melodrama “7 Prisoners” (co-written with Thayná Mantesso), a hardworking young man named Mateus (Christian Malheiros) leaves his small village with a handful of others to go to São Paulo, where they’ve all been promised steady work in a junkyard and more money and future opportunities than they could possibly imagine. But within days of arriving, these kids find themselves locked in a Spartan barracks, left with no wages, few meals and an exhausting schedule.

“7 Prisoners” is part of the long tradition of movies, plays and novels that call attention to real-world problems — in this case, human trafficking and exploitation. Two of the producers, Ramin Bahrani and Fernando Meirelles, have made a fair number of these films, including “99 Homes,” “The White Tiger” and “City of God” between them.

Moratto has also made one before: his 2018 debut, “Sócrates,” starring Malheiros as an impoverished teenager trying to scrape by on pennies while also dealing with the usual adolescent angst. The key to Moratto’s work so far is that he ties whatever issue he’s exploring to one finely shaded character, who is more than just the social problem he represents.


In the case of Mateus in “7 Prisoners,” he’s a smart and good-hearted kid who knows how to play the angles. Once it’s clear that he and his bunkmates will be risking their own lives and the livelihoods of their families if they try to escape, Mateus starts looking for ways to curry favor with their tyrannical boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), in hopes of improving everyone’s lot.

The movie’s plot is a little thin, and its message quite blunt. The more Mateus cozies up to Luca, the more he realizes that both he and his captor are caught up in a system that thrives by pitting working folks against each other while insulating the powerful from the inhumane ways they run their businesses.

But while “7 Prisoners” doesn’t pack many surprises, it is remarkably well drawn, featuring gripping performances and a vividly squalid setting. It captures the hopelessness of these men, trapped in a city where even the authorities who might help have no idea they exist — and no incentive for finding them.

'7 Prisoners'

In Portuguese with English subtitles

Rated: R, for language, some violence and a sexual reference

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 5, Landmark Westwood; available Nov. 11 on Netflix