Lawrence Russell

Lower City [Cidade Baixa] 2005 | dir. Sergio Macado

Lower City (Cidade Baixa) writ. Macado & Karim Ainouz | edt. Isabela Montiero de Castro | cine. Toca Seabra | music Carlinhos Brown & Betto Villares | sound/design Waldier Xavier & Denilson Campos// Leandro Lima & Romulo Drummond | costumes Cristina Carmago & Andre Simonetti | prod Walter Salles & M.A. Ramos

star. Lazaro Ramos (Deco) Wagner Moura (Naldinho) Alice Braga (Karinna) Jose Dumont | widescreen color | www.palmpictures.com | 2005 | color widescreen 98 mins | portuguese with english & spanish subtitles

Lower City at www.palmpictures.com

|| Brazil. Two young men, one white, one black, and a girl who is mostly white, take a boat down the coast to the "lower city" of Salvador de Bahia. A sex triangle develops... initially a matter of expediency, it becomes a problem of shifting loyalty. The arrangement is never meant to be more than temporary, but of course the three bond due to the mutual need for survival. They live in an outcast society of the rural Brazilian poor, somewhere between the working peasant and the urban hustler, with the moral freedom of the hippy. They're like tourist backpackers but without a plane ticket or a "higher city" to return to when the going gets tough. As Karinna tells her sister as she slings her light bag over her bare shoulder, she's heading down to Salvador to find some work, maybe "pick up a gringo".

Karinna (Alice Braga) runs into Deco and Naldinho in a small grocery store where she's hoping to find a truck driver who'll give her a ride south. They quickly cut a deal, a basic quid pro quo of sex for a berth in their small cabin cruiser. Underway, they take turns steering and screwing while listening to a soccer game and everything seems to be going just fine until their first stopover and Karinna decides she can get where she's going faster if she can find a truck driver.

Naldinho and Deco go for beers in a rough cantina, bet some money on a cock fight, get hassled by an old psycho who wants them to keep gambling or simply has some mysterious mental issues. He knifes Naldinho, and Deco responds by wasting the psycho with the ragged end of a broken bottle. You assume the man is dead, or near enough, and while the police presence is fleeting in this film, you accept the priority of escape over proper medical attention.

As Deco staggers onto the dock supporting the badly wounded Naldinho, they meet Karinna making her exit with a truck driver. However, as she's about to climb into the cab, she reconsiders, rejoins the duo on the boat and ends up nursing Naldinho. Despite the blood and the cramped quarters, this doesn't inhibit her from having sex with Deco on the floor beside the bed. Happy, Deco takes the helm, steers through the night as Karinna does some chores... and they arrive at the old colonial city of Salvador as the dawn diffusion comes up.

Lower City: Karinna & Deco

|| The editing in the film is very good, as the cuts always drop you into unexpected views without dislocating the action. Nice sense of color continuity and design too. While there are occasional landscapes and seascapes, most of the cine is close on the subject, and the framing makes the most of the accidental point-of-view... sight-lines through open doors, down hallways, alleys, etc. The modality is documentary, with minimal emotional interference from the music score, although it must be said that the electronic soundscape by Carlinhos Brown and Betto Villares is excellent.

Deco gets his wounded pal to Marinalva's house... and a doctor is called to the upstairs apartment. "An inch to the side," says the Doc, "and he would've been a goner." When Deco says he short on the fee, Doc says, "Who do you think I am? Mother Theresa?" This is typical of the dialogue, which is always basic, without literary artifice. Dec and Karinna then have some stress sex on the floor beside the bed, and so it goes. You just know something is going to mess up this menage trois.

Deco heads out to find some work, finds a boss hustler called Don Mundos eating and drinking in a street cafe. This is the only true character cliche used, as film after film always characterizes the criminal plutocrat by his greedy appetite. Mundos offers him a gun job but this is too heavy for the decent Deco. When he returns to Apt 3 at Marinalva's house, he finds Karinna gone. Naldinho is sitting up in the bed, says, "She split." And then teases Deco about having sex with her before he's dead.

Cut To: Karinna looking for work at a strip bar. Cut To: Deco looking for work at a boxing gym. Cut To: Karinna pinning some magazine pictures on the wall of a spartan apartment. Cut To: Naldinho & Deco in a street bar joking about their "whore" with Ruffino, the owner. Cut To: the wharf, with the three reunited, sharing a cigarette as Naldinho and Deco reminisce about hanging out here as kids. It's an idyllic moment within the natural movement of things.

But it's hard to make a living, hard to put together a dream. As one woman at the club says, "So many pothead bitches are fucking the gringo for free." Yes, it's hard to cut some action. Brazil is no welfare state, and for those whose only education is the street, the only asset they really have is the strength and cunning of youth.

The straight-line docu-style narrative of Lower City will remind some of the so-called "kitchen-sink" dramas of the 1950s coming out of the U.K., like Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, where the action is all environmental determinism. Yet one of the things that you'll notice about Lower City is that despite the poverty the technical trappings of contemporary living exist. The Xanadoo club where Karinna dances and sells her body is like any techno funk stripper joint downtown in any major city anywhere, and the grooves are international.

In this "lower city" warren within the alleys and moldering plaster [down by the water and separated from the "upper city" by a steep cliff] there's a fine line between inmate & tourist, crime & freedom. In fact, the principals' descent into crime is just an expediency, has little to do with ambition. The only ambition Naldinho or Deco express is simply to possess Karinna exclusively, to set up house and who knows, maybe live happily ever after. Some people will read "allegory" into the pointed black/white characterization, two friends sharing and later competing for the same woman, a madonna-whore. Symbolism? The situation is vaguely New Testament, especially between Karinna and Naldinho, although the story is more obviously a commentary on Brazilian youth today. One is reminded of the straight forward social narratives of Italian neo-realist film.

Needless to say this careless, feral relationship can have only one conclusion. Will it be Cain and Abel? The ending is ambiguous, like a TV program that disappears mid-season. The determinism is documentary rather than fiction, inclusive rather than fatal. This isn't a weakness, as the characters are actually stronger than simple tragedy, although tragedy stalks their lives like a bad comedian with a bad cold.

You could say that the cinematic style of Lower City is typical of today's digi verite movie making, where the hand held camera and fast computer edit gives the action a clandestine look, as if the montage has been assembled from security camera captures. While it is regular film (I believe), the patina chemo, the result is a hi-concept naturalism that places the viewer right inside the action.

The conceptual idea for this film, apparently, was to follow the fortunes of three young people in their twenties who adopt a relationship outside conventional mores... then see what happens. While jealousy does become an issue, it's surprising how utilitarian their friendship seems, and to the outsider, it's Brazil beyond suburban Catholicism. It's Afro-Brazil... yet there's something universal in the situation outside of class, country and economics, as friendship and sex is a common rite of passage everywhere in this world. It's not a thing exclusive to putas, dopers, and the devil.

|| Aficionados of Brazilian film will recognize these actors from roles in City of God and Carandiru, two gritty dramas about the underbelly of contemporary Brazilian life. Producer Walter Salles (Central Station, Motorcycle Diaries) seems committed to stories about the disadvantaged in Latin America, to draw imagery and emotion from the culture of instinct and survival. While anything can be viewed within a political context, politics isn't what this film about. Advertising proclaims it to be erotic, and while the blunt sex scenes might be erotic to some, the fundamentalist approach makes them more like eating, a necessity rather than a sacrament. Even though it's voyeurism, the sex fails as pornography because of the larger narrative context. And it doesn't even seem like prostitution, even when money is exchanged.

Lower City is Sergio Machado's first film as director, although he has already proven himself as a screenwriter [and assistant director] on a number of films, including Salles' Central Station and the excellent Behind the Sun [Abril Despedacado, 2001] which is set on a sugar plantation.

© LR 12/06


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