Multi-award-winning Brazilian drama Sócrates tells the troubled story of a bereaved gay teenager barely surviving in a São Paulo slum. Directed with quiet restraint and featuring a central performance of startling depth and candour, this movie is a slow-burning story of loss and solitude which is also resonant with humanity, dignity, and hope.
The film starts abruptly with the wrenching moment in which young Sócrates finds his mother unresponsive in bed. He does not have time to grieve, however, as life’s demands rush into the void left by her death. Soon enough he is homeless, unemployable, and, as he is estranged from the rest of his homophobic family, quite alone. Though he searches far and wide for work, all he can find is one day of menial labour, and he quickly gets into a fight in the yard. His sullen sparring partner later draws Sócrates into a clandestine relationship which comprises equal parts physical attraction and emotional distance.
If you think this sounds bleak, you’re not wrong. The film follows Sócrates through his life, so freshly hollowed of protection and comfort, and at every turn, there is rejection, humiliation, and abandonment. The movie takes its time, and there are few laughs. But Sócrates’ sufferings are made approachable by the graceful, assured performance of screen newcomer Christian Malheiros, who plays Sócrates with a powerful blend of tender naivete and defeated world-weariness. The central relationship between Sócrates and rival-lover Maicon (Tales Ordakji, also excellent), too, is winningly portrayed. Without relying on overexplanatory dialogue, the pair’s deft physical performances memorably evoke the complexity of young gay intimacy.
Despite its apparent simplicity, Sócrates has a richly textured emotional range. First-time director Alexandre Moratto accomplishes a great deal using a limited arsenal of tools. With sparse (almost minimal) dialogue, a small cast, and a straightforward (if beautiful) visual style, the movie manages to articulate something of the experience of stunned, lost numbness that can accompany so sudden and destabilising a loss as Sócrates has suffered. Many small moments effervesce with a painfully authentic melancholy which is all the more vivid and affecting for how plainly it is presented to us.
It also has vitally necessary things to say about poverty, class, and LGBTQ+ experience in today’s Latin America. Indeed, with arch-homophobe Bolsonaro in power in Brazil, films like this, which take the lives of marginalized people seriously, are more politically urgent than ever. That said, there is nothing parochial about Sócrates, and many of the film’s most important moments resonate with a clear emotional universality. As he hands out his one-paragraph resumé to bored shopkeepers, for instance, it will be difficult for many of us not to feel a stab of recognition at the hopelessness of Sócrates’ task; likewise, the horror of having to rely on a family who despises you is an experience deeply known by queer people the world over.