Lower City

Lower City


Reviewed by: Themroc

Lower City is produced by director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries) and marks the directorial debut of his erstwhile 1st AD, Sérgio Machado. It follows the fortunes of Deco and Naldinho, two childhood friends turned petty hustlers who impulsively offer a beautiful hooker named Karinna a lift down river to Salvador on their boat in exchange for sex. What follows is a predictable retread of the ménage a trois scenario involving a lot of soft-core sex spiced up with a bit of male rivalry, jealousy and, inevitably, violence.

In a letter written to his cast in advance of the shoot and included in the press notes for the benefit of people like me, Machado explains that he is not interested in making an overtly political film or a piece of social realism. Instead he wants the focus to be on the people in search of a deeper “truth”. “Truffaut,” we are helpfully reminded, “once said that cinema is truth at 24 frames per second. This is the kind of cinema that interests me”.

Copy picture

Hmm. As a rule of thumb I tend to treat this kind of unprompted declaration with a great deal of scepticism. If he’d succeeded in his aims, then what on earth is the point of including his original mission statement in the publicity? Either it’s naked self-congratulation or, nervous that audiences won’t draw this conclusion simply by watching the film, the distributors have helpfully included it so it can be regurgitated - or at least paraphrased - by thick critics struggling to fill column inches with observations of their own.

Watching his characters fight and fuck for an hour and a half while the narrative meandered pointlessly into an emotional cul-de-sac, I came to the conclusion that it was probably a combination of both. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to labour a film’s socio-political issues, but it’s quite another to ignore those issues altogether. By casting such attractive actors in the three leading roles, and by resolutely refusing to examine, or even properly depict, the uglier aspects of its characters’ lives or environment, Lower City becomes a tiresome exercise in sordid chic, dishonestly exploiting its seedy setting (strip clubs, gambling dens, brothels, cock fights etc) to give an otherwise banal story what studio executives and producers like to refer to as “edginess”. This isn’t a moral argument – there is nothing that bores me more than being lectured to by moralists - but if truthfulness is what’s being attempted here, it would help if the film’s universe was convincingly realised rather than simply used as a colourful but essentially spurious backdrop.

Machado would doubtless counter that it’s the emotional truth of the characters that he’s referring to which has nothing whatever to do with strict accuracy or the plausibility of the film’s setting. Even if it were possible to have one without the other (which in any case I dispute), I’m not altogether convinced.

Certainly there is a laudable attempt to foreground character drama over plot contrivances and stereotypes (for which I always find myself pathetically grateful), and the performances are okay within the limitations of the script, but it just isn’t very interesting. In an attempt to liven it up, we even get subjected to that hoary old dramatic cliché, the unexpected pregnancy. Given that the inference of this is that Karinna is at best casual about contraception, it seemed to me that it would have been more dramatic (as well as more likely given much of her clientele), if the clinic she visits had informed her that she’d contracted a pernicious STI.

A development like this, however, would have required a toughness that Machado doesn’t seem to possess. He appears to have become so seduced by his own characters that he is incapable of the cold impartiality that this kind of subject matter really requires to be effective. The result is that for all the pouting and posturing of the three leads he’s far too easy on them and doesn’t manage to properly confront either them or us with the implications or lasting consequences of their emotional cynicism. All loose ends and unanswered questions are ultimately left hanging on a conclusion that I suppose is meant to be ambiguous, but which is in fact an unsatisfactory and slightly embarrassing cop-out.

In spite of earnest proclamations of artistic integrity and purity of purpose, Lower City’s main selling point (and the one that I’m guessing which will make it an international commercial hit) is that, along with its “edginess”, it features beautiful photography of beautiful people having lots of simulated sex. But it fails to achieve the searing emotional intensity it clearly strives for and which is far better accomplished in less sensationalist treatments of jealousy and betrayal by directors such asIngmar Bergman, Woody Allen and even, when the mood takes him, Mike Nichols.

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2005
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Lower City packshot
Two friends find their loyalties tested when they both fall in love with the same prostitute.
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Read more Lower City reviews:

Richard Mellor ****

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


Brazil 2009

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