Lower City Review
Cast: Alice Braga, Lazaro Ramos, Wagner Moura
Something’s obviously in the water. What with the Primrose Hill set, Ed ‘n’ Emma ‘n’ Will on The Archers and now Lower City (Cidade Baixa), threesomes are obviously de rigueur.
Deco (Ramos) and Naldinho (Moura), best friends since childhood, ferry their dilapidated motor boat up and down Brazil’s rivers, eking out a living. Into their lives one inauspicious day breezes Karinna (Braga), a stripper and prostitute, looking for a ride to Salvador. In exchange for her sexual favours they take her on board; the voyage passes pretty merrily until Naldinho is wounded in a bar brawl, and Deco, defending his friend, fatally stabs his assailant. Forced to flee, the boys hole up in Salvador. Deco works, Naldinho recovers, and Karinna moves into the Xanadu nightclub.
The boys start hanging out with Karinna, and, as you do, they end up sleeping together again after one too many Cuba Libres. Despite their vows not to let a woman come between them, they are soon caught up in a web of obsessive desire and jealousy with Karinna helplessly trapped between them. (Not literally, dear reader.)
Produced by Walter Salles and coming from the same stable as City of God, Lower City is much less frenetic and flashy but no less violent. It’s a sad little story of desperate people who nevertheless dream of a better life, with no idea how to go about getting it. Deco and Naldinho are happy enough with their little lives – they’ve managed to give up petty crime – and it’s a measure of how far they’re driven by the idea of Karinna that they are prepared to return to it. Both men dream of saving Karinna, taking her away from prostitution. The irony is that Karinna is a pragmatic little whore, and is quite content for things to stay the same – she likes having her own money and being free to chose who she sleeps with. The director cleverly shows the irony of obsessive love; the further the boys fall, the less it has to do with Karinna, and the more with a fantasy of her that they’ve created.
The milieu is familiar – grungy favela bedrooms, bare mattresses and grubby bars – this is a world where running water is still a luxury. The saturated colours and grainy quality of the film evoke sticky, gritty skin and sweat; shot almost entirely on location, you can almost smell it. When Karinna services a wealthy businessman on a luxury boat, the caramel leather and bright electric lighting comes as a shock. Though the leads are all attractive, none are Hollywood perfect, while the supporting players are authentically pot-bellied and stained of armpit – they look like pimps and hookers. In this atmosphere of blood and sweat the film happily mixes plenty of graphic sex and swearing, as well as a cockfight that might well upset the sensitive viewer.
The three young leads acquit themselves well, especially Braga who, in her first leading role, combines world-weary sensuality with a surprising sweetness and manages to bring something new to the tired idea of the tart with a heart. But at its core the film is less than engaging and it was hard to really identify with Deco and Naldinho’s overdetermined plight. An interesting addition to the growing body of Latin American cinema, but not one of its greater moments.
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