With his first fiction feature, Walter Salles protégé Sergio Machado makes a thorough study of the Brazilian bas-fonds, from a bloody cockfight with a knife-fight coda to strip clubs, whorehouses, sweat-stained flops, low-rent boxing gyms, rusty cargo ships filled with slobbering gobs, back-alley sex, late-night holdups—everything, it seems, but a crack den. You may well wonder if Machado’s protagonists—a pair of boat-owning buddies and the young hooker who triangulates them—ever just go to the movies, or watch a soccer match in a bar not filled with sweaty women and drooling criminals. The ambience resonates off the walls—in what has become the proto-professional template for exportable Brazilian films, Machado’s imagery is saturated with the high-contrast colors of rotten fruit, and the grungy lowlife is never less than convincing.
Such conscientious miserablism might sustain us for a few minutes, but Lower City (the original title, Cidade Baixa, seems more resonant from here) is a bone-tired tale underneath: The lifelong compadres, Deco (Lazáro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), both become infatuated with bleach-blonde hookerette Karinna (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia), and eventually square off against each other. First they let her partially pay for boat passage on her back, but after the aforementioned knifing, in which Deco kills the sleazeball who cut Nal-dinho, Karinna is haphazardly drawn into helping them, and becomes their third wheel. Impulse fucks, spats, jealousy, declarations of friendship everlasting, bonds broken—the tiny arc of Machado’s screenplay (co-written with Karim Ainouz) is as old as the Hollywood hills, and posits, in the old school, that the loss of mano a mano camaraderie is a tragedy no woman is worth. Indeed, the boys are full of physical love for each other, plummeting the movie right into the gay-subtext rabbit hole (where the woman is an evil seductress painfully deterring the queer heroes from their true nature) that fully realized characters and a ceiling on clichés might’ve saved us from.
There are sweet details: Karinna, toughened but hardly fatale, has an uncommented-upon maternal edge that emerges under pressure, and Machado, who won Cannes’s Youth Award, sometimes elides crucial scenes à la Maurice Pialat. But it’s slick homogeneity, co-produced by Salles and co-funded by the Brazilian petroleum giant Petrobras, of a kind that commonly finds U.S. distribution while far better, riskier, more memorable films on the international table are ignored.