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Socrates review – promising debut shines a light on Brazilian homophobia

Bigotry and money worries fuel an anxious yet heartfelt debut from director Alexandre Moratto, made on a visibly minuscule budget

With Brazil’s fascistic government taking violent aim at the arts, the release of Socrates, an otherwise unassuming micro-budget debut feature, could not be more timely. Here is a Brazilian film about social issues, funded and made by a social program encouraging 16-20 year olds from the working class to break into film. It’s the exact sort of project that Bolsonaro wants scrubbed from Brazil, and though it may rarely rise above typical “debut film” expectations, in this context, Socrates can’t help but feel vital.

Socrates (Christian Malheiros), is a gay 15-year-old, living near the Sao Paulo coast, whose life is upended by the sudden death of his mother. Bills start piling up, but there are very few paying jobs going for teenagers, and there are some subtly wrenching scenes as Socrates trudges around town, good-naturedly handing out his rather empty résumé. Financial pressures give him no time to adequately grieve his loss, with his options gradually shrinking to homelessness, foster care, or being sent back into the arms of his estranged and abusive father.

Malheiros gives a very impressive performance in his first screen role, keeping his emotions tamped down until the waves of sorrow and rage inevitably break. Socrates’s story is peppered with these heaving, tearful breakdowns, and it’s these scenes that give Malheiros most room to breathe, and his sterling work elevates the film.

Writer and director Alexandre Moratto lays the misery on thick – homophobia, violence, uncaring neighbours, and money frustrations fill the tiny, 70 minute runtime – but also finds room for heartfelt grace notes. The kindness of an old friend, the exciting romance offered by a charismatic but chaotic co-worker – these small moments of beauty build to an affecting final scene at the beach, with more than a hint of the climax of Roma to it.

Though Moratto does choose some interesting shots, a lot of Socrates is rather visually drab, the tiny budget really making itself felt in the cheap-looking camerawork and flat lighting. The lack of money causes problems in other areas too, with a lot of the noticeably non-professional cast delivering bland performances. Socrates’s lover Maicon (Tales Ordakji) is well-acted, but key characters like a cruel boss and Socrates’s father – built up as an intimidating villain for much of the film – are not, robbing their scenes of potential power.

Socrates is at its best when it just sets its star loose, wandering around the shabby streets of the outskirts of Sao Paulo, stumbling upon striking locations and horribly real threats. An encounter with a lecherous suitor who offers Socrates money for humiliating sex is brief, but the anxiety of the moment makes it feel a lot longer as we see the sequence play out in a claustrophobic close up, immersing us Socrates’s panicked headspace.

Though far from perfect, Socrates introduces us to a director and star who both show great promise and though it never asked to be an Important Film, the recent high-profile dismantling of Brazil’s cinematic culture ensures it is one. Here’s hoping we get to see a lot more out of Alexandre Moratto and Christian Malheiros.

Socrates is now showing in select UK cinemas and on various streaming platforms.

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