Venice FF 2021

7 Prisoners review – profound and intimate look at modern slavery

Brazilian filmmaker Alexandre Moratto’s spare and enthralling social drama offers a lot more than just a story of suffering

A film which transcends its social importance to be an accessible and enthralling look at the human toll of modern slavery, 7 Prisoners is a 2021 highlight. Second-time Brazilian director Alexandre Moratto takes a close look at its 40 million victims worldwide with an intimate story of an innocent group of villagers who find themselves caught up in an exploitative big city scam. The result is profound.

Starring a sparkling Christian Malheiros as Mateus, 7 Prisoners follows a group of four teens who ditch provincial life to earn more in São Paulo. The transport is free, accommodation paid for, advance cash already handed over. Mateus knows his ageing mother can’t (and shouldn’t) continue with the farm work. This is his route to providing – and becoming a man.

But it quickly becomes clear the promise of enrichment is a false one. Machiavellian boss Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) finds any excuse not to pay the group, any fee to take out of their wages. When he finally locks the door one night, Mateus and his pals know they have got themselves into something darker than they could’ve imagined.

Despite its loftier ambition to show the human side of modern slavery, 7 Prisoners is at its most gripping when Moratto focuses on the group dynamic. Mateus’s initial optimism – and later guilt – causes tension with fellow inmates Ezequial (Vitor Julian) Isaque (Lucas Oranmian). The innocence of their early friendship is twisted by Luca, whose punitive demands force the group to turn against each other. Their solidarity is soon extinguished and any signs of collective dissent impossible.

This Steinbeckian idea that the suffering of a group divides its victims as much as it brings them together underpins the bleak view of labour and exploitation presented by the film. It’s no schmaltz-fest. Yet perhaps its greatest achievement is to blend that coherent political perspective with a moving human story in order to illustrate it. Plus, the fact that 7 Prisoners was produced by Netflix and clocks in at just over 90 minutes means it has a good chance of actually finding a global audience. It really deserves to.

7 Prisoners will be released on Netflix in November.

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