Lower City (Cidade Baixa)

Cast:
Lázaro Ramos as Deco
Wagner Moura as Naldinho
Alice Braga as Karinna
José Dumont as Sergipano

Directed by Sérgio Machado

Summary:
Another fine example of Brazilian cinema at its best with brilliant performances by what’s sure to be three of the country’s future superstars.

Story:
Deco and Naldinho (Ramos, Moura) are best friends and partners in a boating company, but when they offer a beautiful, young prostitute named Karinna (Alice Braga) a boat ride in exchange for sex, their friendship will be put to the test as they both fall for her charms.

Analysis:
The first feature film directed by Sérgio Machado, Walter Salles’ assistant director on “Central Station” and “Behind the Sun,” is another example of the abundance of talent coming out of South America’s most fascinating and unique regions.

The story begins with best friends Deco and Naldinho meeting a pretty young woman named Karrina in a bar, and they agree to bring her on their boat to Salvador in exchange for sex. Once they get there, they part ways, but when Naldinho is stabbed in a bar fight trying to protect his best friend, Karrina offers to help tend to his wounds. Deco has become quite smitten with the blonde beauty, and uses his friend’s injury to get a bit of an advantage over his friend with Karrina. She’s content being friends and sleeping with whichever one is available, but that often leaves the other one feeling dejected. Eventually, things start to ugly between the friends because Karrina refuses to choose between them, and things get worse when Naldinho starts committing crimes for a local drug dealer, because he’s unhappy with the lack of business they’re getting from their shared boat.

There’s an aspect to the story that’s almost operatic, going in a few directions that are expected and others that certainly aren’t. The reason it works so well is because everything is handled in a realistic way, from the raw emotions of rage and jealousy to the sexuality between the three lovers. Sure, some of the story elements may seem obvious, like the symbolic foreshadowing of the black vs. white roosters in the cockfight, but the story and the characters are strong enough to keep you riveted to the dissolution of what seems like a strong friendship.

Of course, the most obvious and immediate comparison for Machado’s debut is “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Alfonso Cuaron’s movie about a love triangle that develops on a Mexican road trip, which also took a frank approach to the emotions and sexuality of its characters. The setting of Baiha, a touristy party town full of sex and crime, makes a great background to watch this love triangle develop and implode. The production values are fairly minimal, Machado mostly using a single handheld camera to film the actors in real locations in the city, but even without the gloss or glamour, it beautifully captures the atmosphere of the country in a similar way as Walter Salles’ movies. (Salles was a producer on this project.)

Most guys probably won’t object to the amount of sex and nudity involved with Alice Braga, best known as Rocket’s love interest in “City of God,” turning herself into a true sex goddess with every guy eating out of her hand. It’s a great role for the young actress that’s more than just about the sex and seduction, since she gets to display a lot of different sides of Karrina. As a prostitute, she has to be cold and aloof to get by, but she also has a more innocent and fun-loving side that we only see when she’s hanging with the two friends. It’s never quite clear whether she is deliberately playing them off each other or just simply wants to be part of that bond they share, disrupting it in the process.

Ramos and Moura both appeared in Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru” a few years ago, and though they both have more film experience than Braga, they end up having to keep up with the intensity of her performance. Ramos, who was excellent in last year’s “The Man That Copied,” is up to the task with an equally powerful performance here.

Of course, this type of story is always going to end violently, but Machado leaves the story fairly open-ended about where things might go, driving home the point that life’s loose ends are rarely wrapped up with a pretty bow.

The Bottom Line:
Like other movies that take a realistic approach to sexuality, “Lower City” won’t be for everyone, because it’s a stirring slice-of-life story that takes its time getting to the actual story. On the other hand, anyone fascinated by Brazil as seen in the great films of Walter Salles or Fernando Meirelles will be interested in seeing these three fine young actors shine, as they bring realism to this intriguing love triangle.

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