Each year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards give the Someone to Watch Award to an emerging filmmaker of singular vision. In this column, film critic David Bax revisits some of the grant’s recipients to see how their work and careers have continued to develop.
Making movies about poor kids is a fraught enterprise. Plenty of films have come under fire for charges of exploitation, especially in cases where the actors hail from the communities being depicted. One of the most notable of these is Hector Babenco’s 1980 crime drama Pixote, whose young star, Fernando Ramos Silva, was feted upon the film’s release but soon found himself back on the streets and was shot to death by police at the age of nineteen.
Socrates, which won director Alexandre Moratto the Someone to Watch award in February of 2019, also unfolds in the most rundown neighborhoods of São Paolo. But Moratto seems to have been aware of the risks at hand and made decisions—most of them before the cameras even began to roll—to mitigate them. First, the real-life counterparts of low-income teenagers depicted in the film aren’t onscreen. They’re behind the scenes, making up Socrates‘ production crew and thereby relieved of the camera’s all-consuming gaze.
Secondly, Moratto’s star, Christian Malheiros, is a trained actor, a few years older than the eponymous character he’s playing. Sudden success is likely to be less traumatic to a young man like that. More importantly, it doesn’t hurt that Malheiros is fantastically talented.
There’s another criticism Moratto is risking here, that of miserablism. In addition to the relentless indignations of poverty, Socrates endures the sudden death of his mother, the return of his abusive father and, in case all of that wasn’t enough, violent homophobia. Hope is in short supply and, often, such movies exist primarily for the likely liberal viewers to feel good about themselves for feeling bad about the underprivileged. But, again, Malheiros is the key to avoiding pitfalls. His soulful performance is as disarming as it is unarmored, disintegrating the cellophane layer of protection that usually exists between a movie and its audience.
So it’s a no-brainer that Moratto reteamed with his secret weapon Malheiros for his follow-up film, this year’s thrilling, confrontational 7 Prisoners. This time, Malheiros is Mateus, another kid from a struggling family but, unlike in Socrates, it’s a supportive one. It’s also a rural one but that setting only persists for the opening chapter, before Mateus heads off to São Paolo with some other local young men for the promise of a job that comes with food, lodging and the ability to send money back home. They’ve been fooled, though. What actually awaits them is not economic ascendance but indentured servitude. They aren’t allowed to leave the premises of the worksite (where they strip down cars and other machinery for parts and wiring) and they won’t be paid until their expenses are covered, which they never will be.
Some of Mateus’ fellow captives desire to react with immediate violence, an understandable response to such an infuriating injustice. But he instead begins to plan and maneuver, attempting to play a long game that will have a better chance of success, where the most obvious course of action would only lead to them being beaten and, in the worst case scenario, their families being killed. Thus, while maintaining all the social realism of Socrates, 7 Prisoners becomes a thriller. As it has so often throughout not just the history of cinema but of storytelling itself, the familiarity of genre gives a moral cry its shape, something for people to hold onto.
In just two films, Moratto has charted a similar journey to the one forged by the last subject of this column, Ramin Bahrani. Chop Shop and Socrates both plead with us to sympathize with their impoverished young protagonists. 7 Prisoners, like The White Tiger, is more accusatory, a direct challenge to the viewers’ comfort, Michael Haneke-style, but cloaked in gripping entertainment. Both films give us directors who seem to have hardened into a very useful mode of cynicism. Once again, we get a lead, in Mateus, who learns that the only way to achieve any sort of personal freedom is, paradoxically, to give in to the inherent oppressiveness of the system in which we toil. Hard work is not a ladder; it’s a pen in which you build the fence around yourself anew every day. It’s become au courant in certain progressive circles to wring an anti-capitalist message out of almost any critically approved work of popular art. 7 Prisoners is so fierce, though that it’s hard to read any other way. And, at the same time, it’s so entertaining that it’s hard to look away from.
Other nominees: Moratto is the most recent Someone to Watch winner I’ve been given the chance to write about and he is the only one of his class to have released a subsequent film. As for the other two movies that were nominated, Ioana Uricaru’s Lemonade, an immigration drama about a Romanian woman’s possibly fraudulent marriage to an American man, was well-received upon its release and at festivals. Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals is a sublime, beautiful and sometimes dangerous subjective coming-of-age story and his second feature, Hustle, is due to appear on Netflix next year. It looks to be another seriocomic Adam Sandler role from an indie director on the rise, so it will probably be amazing.
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(Header: 7 Prisoners)