Cinema Signal:

Erotic Cinema

[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]
"Lower City"
(aka, "Cidade Baixa")

It would be impossible to argue that this film isn't aiming for the eroticism market but, then, the filmmakers of this Brazilian exploit aren't claiming otherwise. What director Sergio Machado is also doing, however, is pursuing his goal with attractive casting and close concentration on the passions that most command our interests and attention. He boils it up into a stew of triangular love and lust but always within the context of character and human obsession.

The issue is over the sexual competition between two friends who have been together since childhood. It starts out earthily, but relatively innocently, when they overhear sexy, gorgeous 20-year old Karinna (Alice Braga, "City of God") trying to hitch a ride to Salvador aboard a truck. Turned down by the driver, Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) offer her a trip to the city aboard their boat, one they use to support themselves with mostly legal cargo.

What follows is a negotiation over price. Not the fee for the passenger, but the fee for the girl. She gets her fee, and the boys get her, trading off while the other takes the wheel. But the outcome isn't as simple as a quick lay with a whore. The boys can't keep her out of their minds any more than she can forget them. They pal around, they become engaged in her protection, they take a percentage of her whorehouse's earnings, and they make love to her every chance they get, with intense hunger.

Not much is left to the imagination, including her frame of mind. She simply can't decide between the two, apparently realizing that sex with them is like no sex with her johns. But, of course, through this democratic approach, trouble is brewing. The boys come to the point of having to state their love for each other, taking vows that no woman is important enough to come between them. No, sir.

But, of course, one does, and her sensual beauty and erotic responsiveness almost makes it worth the loss of friendship as competitive hatred becomes the dominant emotion. They will come to blows. She's fully aware of the process going on. She decides to leave town, "or, they'll kill each other" she tells a colleague.

The Brazilian "lower city" of waterfront Salvador (yes, there's also an upper one) is a colorful if seamy setting for this kind of steam, where passions of the flesh seem to be part of the national DNA. Karinna isn't the only gorgeous female in these frames, but she is an outstanding package of long, flaxen hair, tight brass-colored skin, and looks that can melt steel, if not the NASA orbiter's heat shield. She's also a splendid representative of the Braga claim on sensuality as the niece of the best known among 'em, Sonia Braga ("Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands"). This next generation of Bragas as embodied by Alice (pronounced A-lis-ee), will continue the claim on men's senses very stimulatingly, thank you.

This is an impressive first feature for Machado who comes to it from the literary side, keeping his film within a universal frame of reference by sticking to character and the kind of feelings and urges that tend to fascinate the voyeur in all of us. It's an explosive piece of chemistry that energizes a certain bloodless ennui. The plot with no subplot is explored somewhat repetitively, a certain lassitude prevailing, but you won't be able to leave your seat for popcorn if my reaction is at all indicative.

I also got the impression that Machado allowed his actors plenty of space to internalize and create their moments, which consist so much of rage hidden behind subtleties, libidinous pressure at the edge of containment. His only pushiness is a sequence in which the three confront one another in a series of intercut extreme closeups of their eyes. Expressive enough and good for some variation in the technique, with the sweat and tears a vital part of it, as these visible indicators are throughout.

So, it's not just eroticism, but a delicate balance of fear and doubtfulness growing out of the realization of what two other people mean to you. Come for the boiling lust if that's what jerks your chain, but the story and the acting are the true rewards. No member of SAG should miss it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                         Cinema Signals  

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Alice Braga as prostitute Karinna
With the objects of her obsession.

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