‘Sócrates’: Dignity, Gay Resilience, and the Fight to Not Disappear (Brazilian Gringo)

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Welcome to The Brazilian Gringo, an ongoing column about life, pop culture, politics, and history in Brazil from the perspective of a permanent resident who has lived in the country for three years and counting. If you have any suggestions for subjects you’d like to see covered in future articles, let me know in the comments!

“Don’t disappear”

Those were the two words echoing through me head as I watched Sócrates. It is a shattering character study, a haunting portrait of a young gay Afro-Brazilian teen is struggling not to fall into the dark shadows of Brazilian society. The film is short; it’s only about 70 minutes when the credits are factored in. But it leaves a momentous impression: a look at the soul of a smart and sensitive child who has had to grow up way too fast and tap into an inner well of resistance that many adults could never fathom. Despite all the brutalities he faces, his journey is one of hope through sheer persistence. This is one of the best films I’ve seen from the previous decade; it’s currently tied for the #1 spot on my Best of 2019 list.

The film opens with a woman staring blankly into space. Her son Sócrates (Christian Malheiros) calls for her to wake up and get ready for work. She’s unresponsive and Sócrates pleas grow only more panicked and desperate before realises that she has died in her sleep. Suddenly alone, he quickly goes into survival mode. He tries to continue covering his mother’s shifts as a cleaner and when he is let go on the count of being underaged, he starts methodically looking for a steady paycheck. He applies to local small shops and eventually finds freelance work in a scrap yard, where he soon meets Maicon (Tales Ordakji), another young man with a surly disposition. Despite a combative first meeting, Maicon lashes out and Sócrates immediately shows he’s not one to back down, they form a friendship which slowly becomes romantic and sexual. At the same time, Sócrates’ life is rapidly deteriorating. Work is inconsistent and the little money he has he proceeds to drink away to forget his grief. He quickly finds himself homeless; a kindly social worker tries to help him but knows that the only available option outside of living with his father, who is revealed to be an abusive homophobe, is to live in a group home, a fate that Sócrates rejects with palpable fear. Every moment of small triumph is followed by an even bigger defeat. The search for employment leads to some truly harrowing encounters, trying to get his mother’s cremated remains proves to be a bureaucratic nightmare, and his relationship with Maicon enters some unexpectedly fraught territory. Through it all, Sócrates continues with dogged determination to build a better life for himself. He has no choice but to keep fighting. The final shot is him in the ocean, staring directly ahead at the horizon.

On paper, the film has all the tropes familiar in social realist miserablism: homelessness, family abuse, wall-to-wall tragedy, all centred on a young person from a historically disenfranchised background. It would be exploitive if it weren’t for the enormous compassion behind the camera. The director, Alexandre Moratto, makes his debut and quickly establishes himself as one of the most interesting Brazilian directors on the rise (his second feature, 7 Prisoners, cements this and will be discussed in a future column). He co-writes the screenplay with Thayná Mantesso and both have a shrewd eye for detail that gives the film so much power. Many the film’s most impactful scenes, like Sócrates working his charm on a woman at a print shop so she can print some extra copies of his CV have a slice-of-life energy that almost feels like a documentary. Similarly, the most brutal and heartbreaking moments in the film, like the sight of Sócrates scavenging for food in a trash heap or him considering making a pornographic film with a pedophile, are depicted with a matter-of-factness that makes the horrors feel disturbingly commonplace. Moratto and Mantesso eschew sentimentality and easy uplift at every opportunity. They know someone like Sócrates will almost certainly have a hard life for years to come, but will always be a person who fights tooth and nail for what he wants. It’s a mentality that always flows into other aspects of the film’s production process. Sócrates was produced by the Querô Institute and many of the film’s crew included several at-risk 16-20 year olds. Knowing this only deepens the film’s naturalism and honesty in how it captures this particular facet of Brazilian society.

At the centre of it all is Christian Malheiros, who gives one of the most impressive and assured debut film performances that I have ever seen. Malheiros, like his co-star Ordakji, is a young theatre actor and carries himself with a naturalism, confidence, and innate charisma that demonstrate a maturity beyond his years. It’s a “star is born” performance in every sense. The way he can effortlessly transition from moments of steely reserve to wailing sobs is simply astonishing. His greatest strength is how well he conveys Sócrates’ unapologetic self-assurance and dignity. He resists every opportunity to mug for easy audience sympathy. In a fair universe, his performance (which earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actor) would have won the Academy Award.

Much has been written, both in Brazil and across the world, abut the film’s depiction of poverty and hardship, particularly in the lives of Black and LGBTQ+ Brazilians. The film certainly explores those ideas but at its core it is more focused on the ideas of dignity and resilience. Therein lies the film’s true power. Far too many films, particularly those focusing on people of color and/or queer people are so condescending in how they depict suffering and tragedy. Either it’s mawkish so the white and/or cishet audiences can pity the characters and take solace in knowing they are *actually* human (eye-roll forever) or there’s a perverse “suffering builds character!” mentality. Moratto, Mantesso, and Malheiros miraculously manage to avoid those traps. Sócrates is shown to be confident in his sexuality, unafraid to express his lust, and completely willing to fight back against any homophobia that comes his way. For all the misery on display, there’s something genuinely thrilling in watching a queer character of color always fight back and not be reduced to a punching bag or hollow symbol. Sócrates demands dignity and while he may receive few successes or moments of relief, that spirit of resilience and grit is oddly yet genuinely inspiring.

As a gay viewer, I admit to having a higher tolerance than most for narratives concerning queer pain. A lot of the ‘positive’ LGBT-centric media I find vapid and jejune and worst of all, so uninterested in exploring what it means to be queer in imaginative or thought-provoking ways. But then again, “vapid,” “jejune,” and “uninterested in exploring what it means to be queer in imaginative or thought-provoking ways” are easily applicable to many queer tragedies too. How many “bury your gay” tales end up providing more unintentional guffaws than actual tears these days? Having said that, I do tend to gravitate more toward the darker LGBT tales and Sócrates eloquently captures why. I watch a film like this one and I feel like I am stepping outside of myself and seeing a person that society almost always ignores. I feel like I’m seeing a part of Brazil that deserves more attention and has a vibrancy and creativity that has been unjustly ignored for far too long. It feels like watching life itself instead of an assortment of paper dolls being manipulated for easy sentiment.

In my column for Linha de Passe, I wrote about one of the film’s most powerful scenes in which a young man in the middle of a crime demands his victim look at him. The more I thought about it, the more it summed up a recurring theme in so many classics of Brazilian cinema: that fear of disappearing and the urgent desire to be seen. Peixote is a classic about a group of street-wise orphans in São Paulo trying to survive their cruel circumstances. Central Station is a beloved tale of a bitter retired school teacher who reluctantly helps a young orphan try to find his missing father. City of God is a masterpiece about different generations of poor Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) fighting to stay alive in one of the most notoriously violent favelas in the city. Now Sócrates arrives and can comfortable place itself on this list. It’s a work of art and one of the finest recent examples of the heights Brazilian cinema can reach.