For those of you that don’t know, Socrates was an Ancient Greek philosopher who established the foundation of modern Western philosophy. Guided by an inner divine voice, Socrates primarily believed in an ethical society, a system based on human reason as opposed to theological doctrine. Guided by his own divine voice, the titular young protagonist of Alexandre Moratto’s searing debut feature Socrates strives to find a semblance of morality in a cruel, prejudiced world. It is a world guided by strictly-enforced regulations, where human reason isn’t just absent – it’s irrelevant.
If this makes Moratto’s “slice of life” drama sound bleak – well, it certainly is, at times relentlessly so, yet it never crosses over into “morbid” or “gratuitous” territory, a glimmer of hope resolutely shining through the most dire of ordeals. And hey – we live in a bleak world, one that professes growth and development, both ethically and economically, yet steadily deteriorates before our eyes. The underprivileged, the differently-abled, the LGBTQIA continuously get harassed or shunned. Socrates never resorts to mere pontification. Through the prism of its young hero, it simply provides a hyperreal glimpse into what it’s like for the ostracized. As such, it’s an unforgettable experience.
“Set in the dilapidated outskirts of São Paulo, the film follows the ordeals of fifteen-year-old Socrates, whose mother just passed away.”
Set in the dilapidated outskirts of São Paulo, the film follows the ordeals of fifteen-year-old Socrates (Christian Malheiros), whose mother just passed away. Without a father or a guardian present, he’s under threat of being placed in a home. Socrates refuses even to entertain the notion; with no time to mourn, he adamantly looks for a job, so that he can keep paying rent. His young age, however, renders the mission near-impossible. Eventually, he gets a part-time gig at a junkyard, where he meets the hunky, fiery Maicon (Tales Ordakji). As their relationship develops, Socrates runs out of money and options – and then his despicable father comes into the picture.
Moratto is careful to gradually reveal crucial information about Socrates and his past, letting the puzzle pieces fall into place as the narrative unfolds. Christian Malheiros appears in every scene and is absolutely magnetic: by turns impassioned and diffident, he gives the film his all. It’s a raw “can’t take your eyes off him” performance that should earn the young actor much-deserved international acclaim. Tales Ordakji is equally impressive as Maicon, desperately hiding tenderness under a veneer of toughness, too afraid to be judged, to be shunned. Unlike him, Socrates doesn’t have a choice. He’s been freed, for better or worse.
“…provides a hyperreal glimpse into what it’s like for the ostracized. As such, it’s an unforgettable experience.”
In a film that rarely steps wrong, it’s the little moments that resonate the most. Socrates looks at his mother’s hairbrush in the bathroom, with her hair still on it, as if she’s just stepped out for a minute. His mother’s co-worker provides Socrates with much-needed empathy in an especially touching scene, set in a…bathroom. São Paulo’s coast is vividly portrayed, both breathtakingly beautiful and heart-wrenchingly dismal – just like Socrates itself. Those peach sunsets blanket São Paulo’s hapless inhabitants: dogs, with flies buzzing around them; prostitutes, blankly waiting on street corners; the stunning architecture that is on the verge of crumbling. Moratto expertly juxtaposes beauty with horror, sadness with joy.
At barely over an hour, Socrates is succinct, like a slap in the face with a bouquet of roses. With an authenticity rarely seen in contemporary cinema, it examines the lives of those that struggle to survive in ecosystems that function according to their own decrepit principles. The highest compliment I can think of is that Socrates himself would be proud.