Lower City

Lower City

****

Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

It seems that the two man/one woman love triangle isn't such a hot idea in Latin America. After Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien saw two boys' friendship fall apart as they squabbled over an older woman, jealousy, resentment and sheer hatred informs the sibling rivalry between brothers Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) in Sergio Machado's latest, Cidade Baixa (Lower City).

Y Tu Mama Tambien is a good place to start from when thinking about Cidade Baixa, for the films share an obvious similarity: two close males see their relationship destroyed by a mutual love for and obsession with a slightly unwilling female. But the likeness ceases there. While Cuaron's picture is a rangy road trip, dealing with issues of friendship, rites-of-passage and larger social concerns, Cidade Baixa is grittier and more compact.

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The issue here, through temptation and competition, is sex - its irresistible power and permanent repercussions. Set in the poor areas of Brazilian seaport Salvador de Bahia - the slums being the "lower city" of the title - the film extracts the maximum use from these grubby environs. Salvador is a maelstrom of activity - boats whiz by, traders yell, clubs pulse with energy and people live clustered together in a higgledy-piggledy fashion.

The city is presented with terrific attention. When required, Deco, Naldinho and the source of their angst, prostitute Karina (Alice Braga), can summon a doctor, a job and a residence with the utmost ease. As the trio wander through closeted alleys and cavernous buildings with complete familiarity, we are lost and adrift. These pond life characters are the ultimate city dwellers, at one with their surroundings, and yet for us Salvador remains a puzzling, intense location. The taut, confused geography of the city reflects the bewildered emotions of the protagonists as they hurry around it in increasingly stumbling circles.

It is the sensitivity of Machado's film that sets it apart. Often conversation is limited to grunts, meaningless one-liners and shrugs. Sometimes speech is abandoned altogether and we hear the hum of the city instead. Salvador is filmed in rich colours - dark, lush reds, or deep and serious greens, or inky semi-blackness. With these passionate colours comes an air of tragedy that dogs the film from the very start and communication between movie and viewer is conducted via the vivid, affected expressions of the impressive cast.

As the brothers, Moura and Ramos proffer different styles. Ramos plays it Method style - his suffering eyes tell of the pain inside, while showing little emotion outside. Moura has a protective shell that's falsity is made wonderfully obvious. He's drunk, loud, naive and proud, yet always struggling with his feelings.

Between the two (literally at one point) moves Braga's Karina. The role demands her to be both exotically, alluringly sexual and yet fragile, inelegant and helpless, which she pulls off with aplomb. As she pants and dresses off-screen after being with a client, she smiles, as if satisfied and pleasured, but gradually her guard drops and a searing sadness transforms her face. It is a terrifically powerful moment.

Such scenes are the triumph of Cidade Baixa. It has a fairly staple plot - two boys, one girl, Jules Et Jim-esque rivalry - fascinating scenery and even an entertaining fight sequence. But the emotional, sensual depth and quality of Machado's film truly distinguishes it from the pack.

Reviewed on: 01 Jan 2006
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Two friends find their loyalties tested when they both fall in love with the same prostitute.
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Themroc ****

Director: Sergio Machado

Writer: Sergio Machado, Karim Ainouz

Starring: Lazaro Ramos, Wagner Moura, Alice Braga

Year: 2005

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Brazil

Festivals:

Brazil 2009

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