Set in the violent lower depths of Brazil’s Salvador de Bahia, a hot love triangle between two poor friends and a young hooker becomes the excuse for an impressive stylistic exercise in “Lower City.” Though the storyline is dirt simple (can friendship outlive jealousy?) and not particularly meaningful or involving, the action in this character-driven film is scintillatingly sexy. Distribs with an eye for the erotic end of art cinema should take a look. It is a strong calling card for first time helmer Sergio Machado and an eye-catching showcase for the talented young cast.
Deco (Lazaro Ramos from “Madame Sata”) and his best pal Naldinho (Wagner Moura) are co-owners a small cargo boat. They give 20-year-old Karinna (Alice Braga, “City of God”) a ride down the coast, paying for her services along the way.
At a cock fight in the coastal town of Cachoeira, a senseless brawl breaks out and Naldinho is stabbed and nearly killed. Deco fiercely defends his friend, and, while nursing him back to health, falls hard for the ever-available Karinna. This being Brazil, the romance unfolds not in hand-holding but in impassioned sexual couplings.
At first, Naldinho teases Deco about giving his heart to a whore, but in the end he finds himself just as infatuated. Jealousy separates the trio, then desire brings them back together in a predictable pattern.
Karinna sails blithely through what looks like a very hard life. She gets a job as a lap dancer in the sleazy club and turns tricks on the side. She spends her free time having fun with first Deco, then Naldinho, then Deco, then Naldinho. The girl can’t make up her mind.
Things would certainly be easier if they could just agree on a menage-a-trois, but the boys appear unable to go to bed with Karinna at the same time. When they are teased about being “boyfriends,” Deco and Naldinho go ballistic. Far from the modern frankness of “Madame Sata,” homosexuality is strangely taboo here. However, the ending obliquely leaves open the possibility of some rethinking of their relationships.
Machado, who co-scripted “Madame Sata” with director Karim Ainouz, here turns the tables and directs a script written along with Ainouz. His cinephile roots show through in quotes from “Jules and Jim” and, more generally, his penchant for building the story through characters rather than plot.
His main strength as director lies in drawing searing performances out of the actors, who seethe with sexual passion and rage. Ramos, who begins boxing mid-film, is particularly convincing as a pressure cooker of pent-up emotion, while Moura holds his own in their final showdown.
Braga, in her first major screen role, has a beautiful body and the ability to communicate some of the erotic intensity that made her aunt Sonia Braga a star. Her sexy striptease by strobe light stands out in a film full of hot scenes.
Film takes the familiar road of continuously eroticising of the nude female body which begins to get more than a little wearisome. Doesn’t this woman own any clothes? Her entire wardrobe (courtesy of costume designers Cristina Camargo and Andre Simonetti) would fit into a small makeup case.
Cinematographer Toca Seabra’s sweaty closeups and raw, hand-held camerawork charge the actors’ bodies with sensuality. Composer Beto Villares has adapted the music of Bahia’s famous native son Carlinhos Brown with sensitivity and style.