Early in Alexandre Moratto’s new film, 7 Prisoners, 18-year-old Mateus attends a small going away party thrown for him by his family. He scolds his mother for buying him a new shirt worth “a month of groceries.” He’s about to leave their poverty-stricken corrugated shack in the sticks for a new life in the big city. Soon a smiling man with a gold watch hands Mateus’s mother a wad of cash and congratulates Mateus for the big opportunity upon which he’s about to embark.
Would you believe, that what Mateus finds isn’t exactly what he was promised?
Like White Tiger, another foreign-language exploration of class released on Netflix earlier this year, 7 Prisoners was produced by Ramin Bahrani (along with City of God director Fernando Meirelles and others) and finds a tidy metaphor for capitalism in miniature. Somewhere along the van ride between his hometown and Sao Paulo, Mateus (Christian Malheiros, a pitch-perfect combination of boy and man) and the handful of fellow migrant workers traveling with him essentially become stateless persons. They have their passports and cell phones confiscated, work long hours scrounging scrap metal, and the man with the gold watch disappears, never to be seen again, replaced by a gun-toting, shark-eyed overseer named Luca (Rodrigo Santoro from Westworld). Luca promises retribution if they try to escape.
Movies that are merely about how sad or how brutal poverty is (or, God forbid, how beautiful) are pretty boring. The beauty of 7 Prisoners, written by Thayná Mantesso and Alexandre Moratto, is that it’s much more concerned with how exploitation actually works. 7 Prisoners is at first a prison break narrative, with Mateus and company carefully studying their surroundings and Luca’s behavior searching for the hole in their defense that will allow them to escape. Yet soon it transforms into a story about the process by which the charismatic yet evil Luca tries to convert Mateus from slave to overseer. As Amsterdam says of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, “It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you’d think.”
Luca, a hard-drinking misanthrope who does seem to have some humanity buried deep within him, is a wonderfully memorable character. Santoro manages Luca’s push-pull between charity and wrath, sympathy and punishment perfectly. Meanwhile, you can see how this process to turn subjugants into participants in the process of exploitation works diabolically well. Remove all hope, dole out the occasional crumbs of security in exchange for obedience, and provide constant and vivid examples of what life could look like without those crumbs. “Well, I guess it could be worse” is the mantra of the permanent underclass.
7 Prisoners is a bit like Deep Cover for slave capitalism. It maintains constant suspense, as we wait to see what’s more important to Mateus, his personal advancement or his loyalty to his friends and family. White Tiger and, to an even greater extent, Parasite and Sorry To Bother You used artifice and the fantastic to craft endings that were symbolic and true to the material, but also cathartic and edifying. 7 Prisoners, texturally rich, suspense-filled, and strong on memorable characters as it is, doesn’t manage this trick nearly as well. In the end, it doesn’t feel like much of a trick at all, content to be merely insightful rather than exciting.
7 Prisoners refuses to cheat, almost to a fault. (It’s art, you’re allowed to cheat a little). That makes it slightly disappointing in the end, but not enough to undo what an adroit snapshot it is of the way exploitation thwarts organization and dulls its opposition.