2006 (USA)Director: Sérgio Machado
Cast: Alice Braga, Lázaro Ramos, and Wagner Moura
he cult of the underappreciated is currently lacking a Brazilian star. Ever since City of God grabbed the attention of art house crowds and then promptly dissolved into a college kid’s cliché—typically falling on a list of preferred cinema somewhere between Crash and Garden State—a befuddling new paradigm has emerged in which liking Brazilian filmmaking is “in,” liking City of God, not so much. And though that film is, by any measure, a better movie than its new countryman, the gloriously gritty Lower City, reveling in the esoteric, still has its appeal.
This new City is not Rio de Janeiro, but Salvador to the north. As befits a city all that much closer to the equator, the main characters—lifelong friends Deco and Naldinho, as well as a beautiful prostitute named Karinna—spend their days all that much more glistening in sweat. How do they get that sweaty? Primarily, they fuck. Karinna picks up the slightly disreputable pair for a ride on their rundown boat. In exchange for the transit, they fuck. Naldinho gets stabbed and Deco gets sad; Karinna wants to cheer him up. They fuck. The three form an awkward friendship, and oh, but how they fuck. Slowly, but surely, the friendship between Deco and Naldinho dissolves away to a combative jealousy over the stunning Karinna. And, again, unstoppably, they fuck. There is, in fact, so much fucking, and among such exuberant participants, that the film was awarded the delightfully named “Award of the Youth” at Cannes. You gotta love the French.
They get it right though—there’s something inescapably youthful about Lower City. Deco, Naldinho, and Karinna seem suspended in a dark and perpetual adolescence. Perhaps it’s the lack of responsibility and failure to recognize repercussions that comes with the life of a drifter, or the sense of being so small and lost that poverty always confers. Maybe it’s all the sweaty fucking. Regardless, the pathos evoked by the inevitable decline of these characters comes unavoidably from a sense that these people are, at heart, very young.
It’s entirely to the credit of City’s cast that such a concept works on American audiences, a culture notoriously more obsessed with the shallow cheerfulness of youth than its tragedy. As Deco and Naldinho, Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Moura (respectively) can brood contemplatively with the best Shakespeareans in the world. Their bond has the kind of conviction that, despite a total lack of exposition on the subject of their friendship and dialogue as convincingly sincere as, “you’re my main man,” serves to completely persuade the audience of a lifelong connection. As Karinna, Alice Braga performs the balancing act of spectacular boldness and vulnerability that any sympathetic celluloid prostitute apparently has to, but she does it all with a fierceness that dominates every frame.
Director Sérgio Machado makes fine use of his talented cast, letting the camera linger and, though the movie is all sweat and nudity, giving the scenes of actual nude, sweaty copulation the kind of shaky, half-lit flair that makes them emotionally powerful rather than just pornographic. Machado also does well by his locale—the colorful destitution of their city is as much a partner to the trio’s ebullient destruction as it is a reflection of it.
But beneath every beautifully executed component of the film’s production is the question of why. Why was so talented a cast, so perfect a location, so sensible a director assembled in service of this story as substantial as Karinna’s wardrobe? Brothers torn apart by an enigmatic woman is an old story, and the film brings nothing new. This version seems to leave out quite a bit, motives almost always being sold more by actors’ salesmanship than their dialogue. I don’t speak Portuguese, but every time a phrase of Brazilian slang was translated as “that’s phat,” I couldn’t quite see it as the romantic proclamations they did.
Lukewarm colloquialisms notwithstanding, Lower City is very hot. The clothes are tight and the actors look better the dirtier they get. Where it fails to meet City of God in storytelling, it at least serves up an impressive depth of feeling with its loud, sweaty and fantastic display of youthful nothingness. Ambitiously banking on the film snob’s recent infatuation with Brazil, posters for Lower City brazenly proclaim it “The new City of God!” Hardly. But such naked coattail riding seems almost appropriate in a film so joyously full of all things naked.
Lower City will be available on DVD Sept. 12th.
By: Amanda Andrade
Published on: 2006-09-07