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Since releasing the knockout masterpiece City Of God in 2002, Brazil has become a blossoming flower in the world of cinema. Hopeful eyes are planted squarely on this country, waiting to see what evocative new movie they will bang out next. With Lower City, Sérgio Machado—assistant director of the foreign gem Central Station—makes his feature debut, exploring the underworld of sex and violence within the Brazilian port of Salvador. It has potential to be another mindblower, so why does the film elicit the same amount of excitement as peeling potatoes?
Lower City is clearly inspired by Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros, but fails to mirror what made those movies good. The story is about lifelong friends Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), two petty criminals who own a small steaming boat in Bahia. When their work dries up and it’s time to head for another port, they meet Karinna (Alice Braga), a stripper/hooker looking to hitch a ride with them to Salvador. Since she turns tricks for a living, it seems fitting that she offers to pay her fare in sexual favors. Neither guy seems to mind.
After making a pit stop in Cachoeira to place bets on a cockfight—an obvious bout of symbolic foreshadowing—a brawl breaks out that leaves Naldinho with a bloody knife-wound in his stomach. Karinna, planning on splitting for a quicker ride on land, returns to nurse him back to health. She barely knows these complete strangers, but somehow her Florence Nightingale complex is alive and kicking. So is her desire to be flat on her back; in a particularly distasteful scene, Deco initiates sex with her right next to his newly impaired, ailing friend on the nearby bed.
Naldinho recovers, but their friendship takes a turn for the worse. The more time they spend with Karinna, the more their feelings grow, jealousy resonates, and fights for her affections increase. Deco finds solace in boxing, while Naldinho returns to crime by pillaging drugstores for Viagra. Movies have been exploring the ‘three’s a crowd’ phenomenon for a long time now, but Lower City completely misses the mark by never bothering to develop its characters. There is not a single interesting conversation in Machado and Ainouz’s screenplay, nothing to express why these guys are friends or why they are so emotionally invested in the girl with no personality. All she does is sleep with them, bail on them, and then come back to start the cycle all over again.
For a film loaded with sex, Lower City is anything but sexy—which is strange considering sex scenes pop up rather frequently. They are basically used as filler to hide the fact that nobody has anything to say, and to make matters worse, they generally border on rape—sex in an alleyway here, violence used as foreplay there. All three actors appear to be sleepwalking through the movie, showing flickers of emotion that are then buried in favor of the next big romp. The undeveloped story and inconsistent characters provide nothing and nobody to care about. For a good time, take a trip far away from Lower City.