'Socrates': Film Review

Socrates-Publicity still 1-H 2019
Breaking Glass Pictures
Striking in its gritty, powerful authenticity.

An impoverished Brazilian teenager struggles for survival after the death of his mother in Alexandre Moratto's debut feature.

Would that all student-affiliated projects were as accomplished as Alexandre Moratto's feature debut. Depicting the struggles of a Brazilian teenager to survive on his own after the sudden death of his mother, Socrates is a haunting slice of Brazilian neo-realism that marks its tyro director/co-screenwriter as a talent to watch. The fact that the film features nonprofessional actors in the lead roles and was made with a crew of students from the Instituto Querô, a UNICEF-sponsored organization for at-risk teenagers, makes the achievement all the more impressive. It's not surprising that Moratto received the "Someone to Watch" award at the Independent Spirit Awards, for which the film, whose producers include Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes), was also nominated for Best Male Lead and the John Cassavetes Award.

The film opens powerfully, with a heartrending scene in which the 15-year-old title character (Christian Malheiros, making a memorable screen debut) hopelessly attempts to awaken his mother who is obviously dead. As we eventually learn, they had fled from Socrates' father and were living on the economic margins on the outskirts of São Paulo. Desperate not to be returned to his father or placed in a foster home, Socrates tries to fend for himself. He fills in for his mother at her janitorial job, telling her employer that she's sick. When he finds out the truth, he tells Socrates that he can't hire him as a permanent replacement because he's underage, a problem that afflicts the young man everywhere he turns for paid work.

Socrates manages to get a temporary job at a junkyard, where he attracts the ire of young co-worker Maicon (Tales Ordakji, also terrific) for working too vigorously. The two young men get into a heated fight, so Socrates is all the more confused when he later receives a phone call from Maicon telling him that he's found another job for him and to come over to his apartment.

The job offer turns out to be a ruse. Maicon makes his romantic interest known, and he and Socrates are soon locked in a torrid embrace. But the burgeoning relationship runs into obstacles; when the two young men kiss on a public beach, they're physically accosted by homophobes, and Socrates eventually learns that Maicon is not quite as personally unattached as he appears to be.

Socrates' problems worsen as he's evicted from the ramshackle apartment he shared with his mother. The authorities won't even give him her ashes, saying that only his father can claim them. He responds to a message on a bathroom wall soliciting a paid assignation, but can't bring himself to go through with it when he meets the repulsive man who wants to pay for his sexual services. And when he does finally reunite with his surviving parent, his father violently rebuffs him because of his homosexuality.

The spare filmmaking style perfectly suits the simple but wrenching tale co-scripted by Moratto and Thayná Mantesso, with the dramatic effect enhanced by the extensive location shooting in low-income São Paulo neighborhoods and jittery, handheld cinematography by João Gabriel de Queiroz. But the film wouldn't work as well as it does without the stunning performance by Malheiros, who's onscreen for virtually every minute of the brief running time. Whether Socrates is attempting to navigate his attraction to the volatile slightly older Maicon or coping with the traumatic loss of his mother, the young actor fully draws us into the character's inner turmoil. The film's final scene, in which Socrates literally lets his mother's ashes slip through his hands, is heartbreaking in its quiet poignancy.

Production: Instituto Querô, Querô Films
Distributor: Breaking Glass Films
Cast: Christian Malheriros, Tales Ordakji, Rosane Paulo, Caio Martinez Pacheco, Jayme Rodrigues
Director-editor: Alexandre Moratto
Screenwriters: Thayná Mantesso, Alexandre Moratto
Producers: Tammy Weiss, Ramin Bahrani, Alexandre Moratto, Jefferson Pauliono
Executive producers: Thais Badim Marques, Priscilla Santana
Director of photography: João Gabriel de Queiroz
Composers: Felipe Puperi, Tiago Abrahao
Casting: Mayara Batista

71 minutes