Review: A Perilous Journey Through a Deeply Troubling World in 7 Prisoners

The second I saw the Oscar-nominated filmmakers Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, The White Tiger) credited as producers, I suspected there might be something special about 7 Prisoners, the second feature from writer-director Alexandre Moratto (Sócrates). The film opens in the countryside of Brazil, where 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) lives with generations of his family. They are poor but happy because they are together. Mateus wants a better life for them, so he accepts a job in São Paolo at a scrap-yard run by Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), who brings on Mateus and a handful of other cash-strapped boys his age to work for him, offering them a place to stay, meals, and a steady salary.

7 Prisoners
Image credit Aline Arruda, courtesy of Netflix

But it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are effectively trapped in this job until they pay off a debt to Luca that their salaries will never be able to pay off, and 7 Prisoners soon becomes a story about the perilous world of human trafficking, in which any attempt at escaping will not only endanger the boys’ lives but the lives of their families back home. Still, thinking that the boys can work off their debt and leave when they do, Mateus makes a deal with Luca to work their asses off for six months to pay him off, which Luca agrees to. But it’s clear he’s more amused at the offer than anything, because it means getting more work out of these kids and knowing full well he’s not letting them go. Something about Mateus’ ambition intrigues him, though, and he begins to give him small tasks to take care of, to see if he has any abilities as a resourceful leader (which of course makes the other boys resent him).

It’s clear Mateus believes that being on the inside with Luca means he can better protect his new friends, but getting money in his pocket again, getting his phone returned to him, and having certain freedoms that the other boys don’t is too good a deal for Mateus to ignore, even if it does leave his friends behind. At one crucial point in the story, Luca takes Mateus on the road with him where he supervises picking up a group of immigrants, some of whom will join them in the scrap-yard and others that will go work in a sweat shop that Luca provides. Through Mateus’ eyes, we’re given a shocking look at how this trafficking operation works and how corrupt every level of law enforcement is in allowing it to flourish. At one point Mateus asks Luca how many people are a part of this slave labor operation, and Luca laughs at the question, answering “As many as it takes to keep this country afloat,” making it clear that human trafficking is simply part of the local economy and tolerated by government officials on down.

As much insight into the practice as 7 Prisoners gives us, the film isn’t meant to be just a message piece about this inhumane practice; it’s the story of the slow and steady corruption of a really good person. Mateus resists more than any of the boys initially, but he quickly realizes it’s better to be on one side of this operation than the other, and before long he’s Luca’s more humane right-hand man, continually proving his value to the organization by successfully dealing with a visit from a labor inspection team or re-capturing runaways. At least in the beginning, everything Mateus does he does in the name of eventually getting out of this life and back home, but something shifts and we don’t even see exactly when it happens, it’s so gradual. He has moments where he could easily escape or even kill Luca with his own gun, but he stays because the money is too good and maybe he can get some of his friends out if he waits. At least that’s what he tells himself.

7 Prisoners is almost more sinister and impactful because Mateus’ journey isn’t as simple and morally pure as we want it to be. He has to allow his heart to be corrupted in order to remove himself safely from this scenario, but perhaps by the time he can leave, he won’t want to. It’s a perilous journey that will leave a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach for most of the movie because we can see it happening, but we don’t know the moment when Mateus will break out of this tempting spell, or if he will at all. The film is a deeply troubling and magnificently structured work, and filmmaker Moratto is a sizable force in his country’s cinematic landscape.

The film is now in select theaters and streaming soon on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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