Lower City Movie Review
Machado was at least smart enough to make the object of his male stars' (and the camera's) attention fully able to deserve it, and then some. As 20-year-old Karinna, the ridiculously gorgeous Alice Braga shares her aunt Sonia's strong, sensual features and iconic aloofness; she's the center of attention in every scene whether she likes it or not, effortlessly drawing in everyone around her. Pity, of course, that the film had to take such an arresting actress and make her a whore. But that's just what Lower City is about: a young whore from a small Brazilian town who gets a cut rate on a ride on a boat to the big city of Salvador by agreeing to sleep with the two men piloting it.
Best friends since childhood, the boat's owners, Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), seem to be barely eking by, running small shipments on their boat and trying to avoid falling back into the petty crime of their younger years. It's a tough life, but seemingly not a bad one, interrupted by two unfortunate events. The first is the arrival of Karinna, the second is that bar fight they get into which results in Naldinho's being severely wounded. After hanging around in Salvador during Naldinho's convalescence, Karinna decides not to immediately abandon the lads, and so sets out sleeping with one and then the other, proving in the end a pretty effective wedge issue. Women.
While it would be disingenuous to claim that Lower City has much in the way of a feminist sensibility -- its star is after all a strangely sensitive hooker who is also an exotic dancer, that much more opportunity for her to get undressed on screen -- the film at least respects its lead actress more than one might imagine. The film has a certain neo-noir descent to it, as Deco and Naldinho's financial situation grows increasingly desperate they begin to plot their own paths, at least one of which is strictly illegal. In that sort of setting, with the main characters' morality heading steadily downward, the most common or expected thing to see would be Karinna's degradation in some form. But as much as she's torn between her men, and riddled with restless torment, the film still somehow manages to keep her above the muck and mire. For all the unwholesome customers she may sleep with, she still has the choice of whom to love, and in the end it's the men who end up on the receiving end of each other's fists, not her.
Although perfectly capable of creating living, breathing characters -- even the rube-seeming Deco and Naldinho are sympathetic and attractive -- what Machado cannot do in the end is craft a story of note. The film's rich and raw colors, as well as its pungent though not overly sensational usage of Salvador's grimier and less reputable districts, make for a visually rewarding experience. But after a time, the poorly-drawn lines of this vague love triangle become more and more indistinct, and the further these characters draw away from each other, the less distinct they become. Love triangles make for great drama in large part due to the claustrophobia; there's no room for anything but love. Although we're not sure until the very end what will come of these three as they try to explore life without the other, what's quite perfectly clear is that the wait to find out is far too long.
Aka Cidade Baixa.
I wish I could live in the upper city.