Nautical by Nature

Washington City Paper | July 7, 2006
On the other side of the equator, Lower City’s protagonist announces that she’s going on a journey, too—to Salvador, in northeastern Brazil. To do so, Karinna makes a deal with lifelong buddies Naldinho and Deco: She’ll screw them both in exchange for a ride on their dilapidated little cargo boat. In addition to condensing the movie’s plot to its essentials, this deal encapsulates Salvador-born director and co-writer Sérgio Machado’s worldview. In his sticky and always-broke homeland, everything is for sale—and for those who can’t scrounge the cash to buy, there’s always armed robbery.

A stripper as well as a whore, Karinna (Alice Braga, niece of Brazilian screen siren Sônia Braga) has no lack of clients when the three reach their destination. Yet she keeps hooking up with Naldinho (Wagner Moura) and Deco (Lázaro Ramos), sometimes even for free. Perhaps it’s those gratis couplings that convince Naldinho that he’s in love with Karinna, a development that imperils his relationship with Deco. When she was just a prostitute, Karinna couldn’t tear the black and white “brothers” apart. But once she becomes a part-time girlfriend—and, inevitably, a pregnant one—she becomes something to fight over. And fighting is another thing Naldinho and Deco find just about irresistible.

Admittedly, Karinna does once bestow something other than sexual favors on Naldinho. Partway through their trip to Salvador, the three stop at one of the film’s myriad dives, where Naldinho gets overly aroused by a cockfight whose bloodiness is shoved directly (and protractedly) into the foreground. The smug owner of the winning rooster takes Naldinho’s money and then directs some racial taunts at Deco. Naldinho sticks up for his Afro-Brazilian friend, getting stabbed for his trouble. Karinna, who was about to abandon the guys to take a faster ride, stays behind to nurse Naldinho, a development that seems entirely out of character.

Not that Karinna has much of a character. If Deco and Naldinho consist of little more than male bonding, explosive tempers, and pressing debts, Karinna is all strut and tease. Her lascivious set pieces—one during which she dances near-naked into a bar’s audience and shares a long kiss with a woman is typical—are designed more to titillate the viewer than to make psychological or dramatic points. Karim Ainouz’s script features plenty of violence, too, including that knife fight, several incidents involving guns, and punches thrown both in and out of boxing rings. None of it leads to a tragic crescendo, however. Instead, Naldinho and Deco slug their way to a sort of acceptance, which after all their scuffling comes as a curious anticlimax.

Like many recent Brazilian films—including City of God, in which Braga appeared, and Carandiru, which starred both Moura and Ramos—Lower City luxuriates in humidity and shanty-town atmosphere. Toca Seabra’s graceful handheld camera snakes through clubs that are just big enough for a brawl and slips into alleys that are ideal for stand-up sex. Carlinhos Brown and Beto Villares’ gently eclectic score adds another source of locomotion without ever becoming intrusive. So credit Machado (longtime assistant director to Central Station’s Walter Salles) and his collaborators with giving Lower City a look, a place, and a sound, each of them distinctive. All his film lacks is a story that’s even half as compelling as the rest of it.

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