From the opening shot of director Alexandre Moratto’s Brazilian coming-of-age drama, Socrates, audiences will recognize that they are in for a very personal, brutally honest, and unrelenting emotional journey following the life of a struggling young teen in São Paulo. Inspired by his time volunteering with the UNICEF-supported Querô Institute in Brazil, a “non-profit that provides social inclusion to teenagers from low-income communities through the transformative power of filmmaking,” Moratto sets out to produce a tribute to the experiences that molded him as a filmmaker today. Assisted by screenwriter Thayná Mantesso, Moratto constructs a feature that is sure to have an impact on the viewer to a certain degree.
The title character, Socrates (Christian Malheiros), is a 15-year-old young man desperately searching for a way to make ends meet after the tragic death of his mother. His father has not been in the picture for some time and other close relatives and friends are few and far between. Because of his age, Socrates still requires a legal guardian’s protection. Additionally, he does not meet the age requirement standards for most jobs and places of work. Thus, Socrates is practically a homeless teen in the poverty-stricken regions of São Paulo, grasping at every possible opportunity and potential place of inclusion with frantic enthusiasm. In the midst of this seemingly hopeless endeavor, Socrates is also beginning to realize his homosexuality. While the LGBTQ community has experienced more acceptance in recent years around the world, many people in this group are still plagued with harsh injustices and prejudices, depending on their geographical location, cultural background, socio-economic classification, or other similar factors. Lamentably, Socrates is surrounded by disdainfully judgmental individuals who add yet another layer of conflict to his story. Nevertheless, seeking companionship, love, and a sense of belonging, Socrates does find Maicon (Tales Ordakji), another young man in the LGBTQ populace. The duo provide each other balance and support, but, paradoxically, other conflicts arise from their relationship later on in the narrative which could have been avoided had they never begun seeing each other. The merciless, unyielding disturbances in Socrates’s quest for peace seem to be without end.
Moratto and Mantesso do an excellent job developing the character of Socrates throughout his dreadfully afflicted journey of daily life and survival. His eager independence, zeal, and determination are on full display over the course of the film’s runtime. The vulnerability of his situation is never in question, but his bold fortitude and strong resolve continue to shine brightly. Even still, he is not immune to very human emotions or to making certain ill-advised decisions in moments of sheer hopelessness. The performance from Christian Malheiros in the young actor’s feature film debut is very impressive, capturing the various nuances and subtleties of this character’s arc and progression. With the narrative focused almost entirely on his individual journey, this was undoubtedly a very heavy load for Malheiros to carry. Still, the aptitude and proficiency presented in his portrayal of Socrates is commendable on many levels.
Looking to the cinematography, DP João Gabriel de Queiroz incorporates very unique methods of visual storytelling and narrative development. Using a 1.66:1 “European Widescreen” aspect ratio, he provides an interesting blend of intimate, emotional close-up shots, as well as wide-angle scene-setting frames. These wider perspectives are effective in depicting the alarmingly dilapidated environment in which Socrates finds himself, with ruined buildings, broken-down housing, and unkempt streets. The color palette is also very beige and dim, establishing the grim ambiance and atmosphere. As the viewer, this is quite heartbreaking to absorb. Of course, even multiplying this pain tenfold would not be enough to fathom actually living in that setting, as many people are in reality. The level of empathy created for the characters is deeply impactful and poignant. Another notable approach taken by the cinematographer in certain sequences is the intriguing inclusion of a shallow depth-of-field. The camera focuses primarily on Socrates in these moments, with the rest of the world around him appearing as little more than a muddled blur. The internal strife he feels in this journey of soul-searching, and his disconnect with society, is illustrated very compellingly. Still, there are perhaps other instances in which the stylistic cinematography stretches a little too closely into gimmick territory. In certain attempts to create the tones of confusion, disorder, and panic felt by Socrates, the camera jarringly shakes and rattles. There is one tracking shot in particular that follows Socrates as he runs away from an altercation and the unsteadiness of the camera is more distracting than anything. Although it certainly does create a sensation of dizziness, which was no doubt the experience of Socrates in that moment, it is a bit too excessive and over-the-top to be regarded as an efficient filmmaking tool. Yet, moments like this in the film are sparse. They are easy enough to look past, especially considering that they were risky artistic decisions that did not quite hit their mark, rather than egregious errors that could have been easily prevented.
This was, without question, a very passionately crafted film from Alexandre Moratto. Dedicated to his late mother, he sought to paint a personal portrait and reflection of experiences from his own life. This type of movie is not one to watch for mindless entertainment or amusement. However, it is one that should be viewed for its honest, realistic depiction of the obstacles faced by many people around the world. From poverty, to the deaths of loved ones, to the hardships endured by those who identify as LGBTQ, people need to be aware of the issues examined in this piece. The character of Socrates acts as a representative of the burdened, downtrodden, and oppressed, who discover deep wells of resiliency and strength within their being. Moratto’s film has something profound to say about the world and the people around us, if we open up ourselves to its commentary.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on August 17, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/08/17/socrates-2018/.*