Film Review: ‘Socrates’

“Socrates” is the kind of downward-spiral narrative bound to sound relentlessly bleak in description. But small wonder Alex Moratto’s first feature won him the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” Award in January, along with various other prizes along the festival trail: He imbues this unhappy slice of slum life with an energy and compassion that transcends mere miserabilism.

With breakout performances by its two young male leads, the tale of a poor gay teen struggling to stay afloat after the death of a parent in Sao Paolo belies its short running time with a sense of full dramatic realization. It’s an engrossing portrait that Breaking Glass will give a limited U.S. theatrical release in early August. DVD/VOD launch follows later that month.

“Socrates” was made with a crew of 16- to 20-year-olds from the Quero Institute, a UNICEF-supported project introducing low-income Sao Paolo youths to filmmaking. Still, this is no obvious “student project” — its assertive vision manifests from the opening shot, a wrenching one in which 15-year-old Socrates (Christian Malheiros) frantically tries to wake the mother, whom he discovers lifeless in bed.

He’s numb with shock as a well-intentioned social worker interviews him soon after, during which we learn he and mom had been in this apartment for only three months. Upon hearing he’ll probably be put in a juvenile home, however, he snaps to alertness. It takes a while before we realize the two of them had fled his father (Jayme Rodrigues), and longer still to glimpse just why. Socrates will do anything to avoid being put back under the roof of his surviving parent, or that of an orphanage.

Yet the rent is already overdue, and his options are close to nil. Keeping his mother’s death secret as long as he can, he fills in at her janitorial post, claiming she’s just having another “sick day.” But the boss there won’t hand over her pay. His underage status precludes his being hired for regular jobs. He does get a temp gig as a laborer in a junkyard, where he gets into a scuffle with lanky, sharply handsome fellow worker Maicon (Tales Ordakji) — who, surprisingly, later calls him with the offer of additional outside work. This turns out to be a ruse, leading not to a beatdown but rather a makeout session that’s not exp0licit yet convincingly passionate.

Maicon is one ally, at least. Yet he proves a very limited one as Socrates’ situation gets more and more desperate. He’s penniless, starving and at imminent threat of homelessness. It’s to Moratto’s great credit that this relentless trajectory feels more urgent than hopeless. Despite his moments of despair, our hero is a fighter, stubbornly unwilling to give up before every last conceivable option has been exhausted.

Malheiros’ terrific turn makes this protagonist credibly tough by necessity, and mature beyond his years. Ordakji is also excellent as the not-much-older new friend whose reluctance to be more helpful is, like other backstory elements here, only partly explained later on. Despite the film’s raw realist air, these two actors aren’t amateur discoveries, but rather theater studies graduates making their screen debuts — at no doubt the beginning of long careers.

Cinematographer Joao Gabriel de Queiroz’s mostly hand-held camera occasionally goes in and out of focus to convey the protagonist’s fatigued, hunger-driven perspective. Otherwise the film’s look is simple but flavorful, with close attention to Socrates’ decrepit environs, and almost no soundtracked music.

Film Review: 'Socrates'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, June 21, 2019. (In Frameline, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Thessaloniki, Havana, Palm Springs, Miami, Istanbul, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 70 MIN.

Production:(Brazil) A Breaking Glass Pictures release (U.S.) of an Instituto Quero and Quero Filmes presentation. (International sales: oFilmes, Sao Paolo.) Producers: Tammy Weiss, Ramin Bahrani, Alex Moratto, Jefferson Paulino. Executive producers: Thais Badim Marques, Priscilla Santana.

Crew:Director, editor: Alex Moratto. Screenplay: Moratto, Thayna Mantesso. Camera (color, HD): Joao Gabriel de Queiroz. Music: Felipe Puperi, Tiago Abrahao.

With:Christian Malheiros, Tales Ordakji, Rosane Paulo, Caio Martinez Pacheco, Jayme Rodrigues.

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