In director Alexandre Moratto’s familiar but still engrossing film, 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros) lives in the Brazilian countryside with his mother and sisters. They adore him, and he adores them. His mother works endlessly to provide for them, and the cost of living—groceries, electric, phone cards—is sky high. So when a recruiter named Gilson (Maurício de Barros) offers Mateus and three other young men from his village the opportunity to travel to São Paolo, they readily accept. Catanduva was beautiful, but Mateus, Samuel (Bruno Rocha) Isaque (Lucas Oranmian), and Ezequiel (Vitor Julian) don’t want to work the fields the rest of their lives.
They leave behind wives, mothers, sisters, and other relatives to climb into Gilson’s van and drive into the city, and Moratto captures from the very beginning the disconnect between there and here. The countryside is tranquil but empty, while the skyline of São Paolo—with its endless skyscrapers and gigantic glass spears—is glittering but unwelcoming, full of sharp edges and unnatural textures. It’s a thoughtful visual introduction to the junkyard where Gilson deposits the four young men, which seems eerily like a prison. Dilapidated bunk beds where Mateus et al. are to sleep. Barbed wire lines the top of the junkyard walls. And its heavy metal gate clanks down with brutal finality, an ominous sound that signals the contract the young men thought they were getting isn’t quite so generous.
As Luca, the man who runs the junkyard and makes the men’s lives miserable, Rodrigo Santoro is practically unrecognizable. Gone is the heartthrob of “Westworld,” the dashing Castro in the “Che” duo of films, the much-hated Paulo from “Lost,” and the monstrous Xerxes from the “300” graphic novel adaptations. He is shaggily bearded, loose-limbed, quick with a slap and casual with a gun. With the easy narcissism and manipulation of so many oppressors, Luca tells the young men that they owe him for their travel, for their advance payments, for the crummy gruel they eat three times a day, for the rotten mattresses they sleep on, for the gloves they have to wear while handling scrap metal, copper, and rubber in the junkyard. “You’re lucky I keep track of everything,” Luca says with faux concern, and the men need to pay it all off.