Thursday 10 September 2020

Street life: "Sócrates"

MUBI have set so much new Brazilian cinema streaming before us over the past few months that this week's theatrical release Sócrates would appear to have slipped someone's net. Still, if you were hunting fresh Brazilian talent, there'd scarcely be any fresher than this. An opening credit establishes that Alex Moratto's film was the end result of a social project conceived to foster a sense of inclusion in 16-20 year olds from low-income households; one of those overseeing this program was the eminent US indie director Ramin Bahrani, who's retained a producer credit. There are traces of Bahrani's quiet, unfussy, observational realism in the story these kids are telling, but equally something of his European equivalents, the Dardennes brothers: the film sets its camera, and the weight of the world, on its protagonist's shoulders, then watches as he tries to walk it off. That protagonist is a 15-year-old (Christian Malheiros) who finds his mother dead in the opening scene, and is then informed he has a week to find either a legal guardian or pass into the care system. With his father off living elsewhere (for the best, it turns out, when we finally catch up with this overbearing, deeply conservative scold), it also falls to Sócrates to pay the rent on his mother's property. Very quickly, Moratto and co-writer Thayná Mantesso set up that we will be watching a hustle in the heat, with nerves and tempers fraying. What we notice first of all is that Sócrates doesn't have time to mourn, and has to try and tamp down his emotions. Yet they keep coming out: rage at the clerk who refuses to hand over his mother's ashes, lust in a clumsy kiss with an older male colleague, the latter the surest sign this boy desperately needs someone to hold him. He finds a kind of peace sipping from a hipflask as the sun goes down on a long, hard day - but even this prompts him to vomit on a neighbour's steps, sparking another brouhaha. In some lives, it just never stops.

That opening credit initially seems a touch defensive, like a pre-emptive apology for any rough edges: hey look, kids made this, so cut it some slack. Fifteen minutes in, it's clear they needn't have worried: both as a piece of storytelling and an extended character study, Sócrates is more assured than many studio movies with bigger budgets. Its quiet strength is that it feels uncommonly close to its title character: you sense that if Moratto hasn't personally been through these situations, he sure as hell knows someone who has. Those situations feel perilously real. There's a lot of ambling round city streets in search of love, money or just a friendly face, punctuated by isolated moments of crisis, like a confrontation on a beach with a pair of homophobic shitkickers. (Just one of Moratto's small achievements: to film a Brazilian beach and make it look no more sunkissed or glamorous than Southsea in September. It's grey and misty, no-one's got time to get a tan, and there are people around determined to make it no fun.) What becomes clear from these perambulations and punch-ups is the extent to which the boy's late mother was a safety net or a bulwark, as single parents often are. Sócrates isn't long for the streets, it's just a matter of how far he'll fall. An encounter with a not-so-friendly neighbourhood pornographer feels like a particular low; still, even here, he bounces, battles and barrels through. Malheiros is very convincing as a resourceful, resilient kid, possessed of a weaponised glare, who exercises enough choice at every turn not to become a patsy or a martyr. As a result, those Dardennes parallels only strengthen: every moment appears dramatically alive, and the protagonist's willingness to fight against his circumstances inspires us, in turn, to care. It's one of those films that could only have been made this well by these people in this place: anyone else would be too detached from Sócrates' plight, and prone to either sentimentalise or overdo the hardship. Moratto, to his credit, knows that this is something thousands experience every day, and nobody ever really stops to notice.

Socrates is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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