Fernando Meirelles' 2002 cinema verité feature City of God was a seamy stew of violence, grit and adrenaline. It inspired both the atrocious Secuestro Express and Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. Now comes Lower City from Brazil, the latest on a growing list of films that revel in the blood, sweat and sex of underclass citizens searching for personal redemption.
Set in the poorest parts of coastal Salvador da Bahia, the film tells the story of childhood friends Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) one black, one white who make a living ferrying people and cargo up and down the river. When stripper and prostitute Karinna (Alice Braga) books a ride, she pays them with sex. Predictably, both men fall for her and jealousy blossoms. Pledging to never let a woman come between them, the friends go their separate ways. Deco returns to his old career as a boxer and Naldinho turns back to a life of crime. Still, Karinna is a sexual force to be reckoned with, and confrontation becomes inevitable.
With more than a nod to Jules and Jim, writer-director Sérgio Machado's interracial love triangle is marked by high emotions, steamy sex and violence. He bounces from cockfights to bar fights to blistering disco scenes and a harrowing drugstore holdup. He also handles the quieter moments gracefully: the men's simple camaraderie, Karinna's heartless nonchalance.
The depths of Brazilian poverty are richly captured, and the actors play off each other with convincing vulnerability. Their desperate grasping for love is painful to watch, and you can't help but be moved by the guilt that shifts between them. Ramos and Moura have the natural ease of longtime friends and Braga succeeds at giving her paper-thin character both humanity and pride.
Unfortunately, it's all wasted on an unfocused and clichéd storyline. Since the men's jealousy is introduced so early in the film, Machado has nowhere to go. Instead of building on the two friends' uncontrollable urges, he dilutes their desire with dead-end scenes and predictable confrontations.
Worse, his ham-fisted stabs at racial commentary overwhelm the film; in particular, a cockfight between an all-black rooster and an all-white one is downright embarrassing.
In this type of film, it's a rule of thumb that the characters must suffer for their selfish desires. Undone by money, sex and violence, their ultimate punishment is meant to shock and disturb us. Though we see the fate of these self-destructive characters long before they do, Machado's still manages to hold our attention.
In Portuguese with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].