Alexandre Moratto’s feature SOCRATES resounds a compelling and refreshing insight into the reality of displacement in the impoverished corners of the São Paulo coast. The camera follows 15-year-old Socrates, a young man isolated by his mother’s death, who realises that the fight for identity constricts the path to survival.
With Moratto’s ongoing critical acclaim; from Jury Prize Winner to Someone To Watch at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, he has certainly secured a place in the spotlight. His process in his stellar debut drifts far from the themes of cultural exclusion seen on screen; composing the script from the voices of vulnerable youths making their filmmaking debuts, in partnership with UNICEF organisations. While Moratto paints his own experiences on the canvas, he also transports the stories and lives of his cast and crew, allowing SOCRATES to not only provoke and involve the majority, but to transcend borders beyond São Paulo and Third World Cinema.
Following the death of his mother, a young man named Socrates wanders through the bleak streets of São Paulo, working his mother’s cleaning shifts claiming her to be merely sick rather than deceased. When her death comes to light he is propelled into poverty and homelessness, unable to obtain employment due to his underage status, and in return he is cast out of his mother’s home as the demand for rent creeps up. While coming to terms with his grief he remains optimistic and determined. There is not a job he won’t do; even if the only positions he can get are on a temporary basis. In his desperation, there are only two things that are not an option: an orphanage, and his father receiving custody. While despairingly searching for work and accommodation, Socrates meets another troubled young man called Maicon in unusual and foreboding episodes, and they form a complex relationship; where hostility meanders through passion in turbulent waves.
Throughout Moratto’s raw direction, and the purity of the documentary-esque simplicity from the roots of French New Wave, the trail becomes more captivating than the need for a poetic destination. SOCRATES has no infused lessons or doctrines – common to more typical coming-of-age stories – within Moratto’s screenplay, almost as if the scenery on camera has fallen from the sky. The film is shot with a nuanced ambivalence, as if Moratto has allowed himself to be guided by the lens. But, while the portrait of São Paulo widens and radiates with every motion, the stillness and focus on Socrates’ lost expression at every turn reminds us that there really is nowhere to go. It is clear that Moratto allows the streets to be amplified by the people who fill them, and that an array of stories can begin to be subtly explored from simply allowing them to blossom in their authenticity. Moratto does not classify SOCRATES as a coming-of-age tale, despite its focus on the journey from the comfort of youth to the brittle descent into adulthood; and in many ways it is far from the traditional criteria. What Moratto establishes from the onset, to the harrowing climax, is that not all truths are digestible, and not all stories end with romanticised enlightenment.
There is a pronounced atmospheric approach to loneliness within the film’s style, the lack of dialogue emphasises Socrates’ disconnection to the people and the world around him; adjacent to the bare streets and the empty coastline. The rhythm and ambience are similar to Ulrich Seidl’s IMPORT/EXPORT, in which the images and intertwining compositions score the film’s mood and flexible intentions, and just like Seidl, Moratto refuses to deliver any misplaced buoyancy to the harsh realities of poverty and struggle.
Christian Malheiros’ debut performance compliments Moratto’s direction with a captivating, naturalistic flair that pulls the spectator into the unforgiving streets with him. While the depravity of displacement and cultural identity constraints are not universally relatable, the themes of loss and isolation are channelled through every expression, in a compelling juxtaposition with Malheiros’ drive, as Socrates, to belong and to survive in a world that refuses to acknowledge him. Malheiros humanises the reality of Moratto’s themes of social injustice with compassion and realism, illuminating the issues and injustices of the LGBTQ+ community, in culturally unaccepting regions, with heart and integrity. The combination of Moratto’s unconstrained philosophy and Malheiros’ transfixing vulnerability; push the boundaries of the film into the intoxicating realities behind the medium.
Tales Ordakji’s role as Maicon embodies the flip side of the human experience within the realms of oppressive society, expressing the reality of the importance of survival in precedence to the crisis of repressed identity; one which, just like that of Socrates, is far from idyllic. Ordakji’s penetrative projection of fear and self-hatred within Maicon’s character submerges the spectator back into the melancholic realisation that either path bares a different, but equally demoralising crutch.
SOCRATES will have appeal for art-house enthusiasts; from fans of Truffaut to Vinterberg, and beyond. For those hoping for a biographical focus into the Greek philosopher, they are in the wrong place. But, just like the lost teachings of the father of Western Philosophy, the film strives to acknowledge that there is much that remains undocumented. The stories within the Third World rely on the voices of those who have lived it, and from Alexandre Moratto’s debut he resolutely proclaims that there are many more stories to make the screen.