Mateus is one of 7 boys recruited by a familiar face in the country villages outside São Paulo. This man selects only the best, and competition is fierce; there are no jobs in the countryside, and 18 year old Mateus is keen to earn money for his family. His family celebrates his luck with a special dinner and goodbye gifts that they can scarce afford. Mateus is proud to go.
Until he and the others are thrown inside a cage, locked up, that is. 7 Prisoners isn’t the only movie at TIFF this year to tackle modern slavery, but the circumstances here are different. The junk yard boss Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) knows what he’s doing. He presents his prisoners with an invoice for every cost incurred, which will conveniently take them a lifetime of forced labour at slave wages to repay. Some of the boys talk of rebellion, of overthrowing Luca in order to escape, but others can think only of their relatives back home living in poverty. Mateus (Christian Malheiros) has an even more complicated choice to make when Luca chooses him to be his middle man, the one who will be directly in charge of the other prisoners. Mateus gets better food, a better bed, a life outside the bars. He also gets a gun to point at his friends, and the job of hunting them down should he escape. The other prisoners have now fixed their hatred on him for turning on them so quickly, for being part of the system that traffics in humans. He’s on the wrong side.
Malheiros shows us Mateus’ agony, but also his determination, and his #1 priority, the family back home. In the few phone calls he’s been allowed, his mother is astounded by the money Luca has sent back on his behalf. She can labour less, save her bad back. For Mateus, this is worth it, but he’s in an interminably awkward position of being both the bad guy and a victim but unappreciated by either side. He has to make extreme personal and ethical compromises to survive, not the prisoners see it this way.
Director Alexandre Moratto transcends simple good vs. bad and presents a more complicated and evolving sense of right and wrong, the steady compromising of values necessarily to survive systemic oppression and corruption. No matter which side of the bars they sleep on, all seven prisoners are being exploited; there is no winning in the game of human smuggling, only injustice, cruelty, and a hopelessness that seeps in quick.
7 Prisoners is an official selection of TIFF 2021.