Rated R, 97 min. Directed by Sérgio Machado. Starring Alice Braga, Lázaro Ramos, Wagner Moura.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 18, 2006
Right about now, it feels hot enough outside to liquefy surgical stainless steel, but the toastiest summer on record is but an intermittently flickering 40-watt bulb when held up to the positively incendiary sexual firestorm that is Brazilian import Lower City. Now is as good a time as any to head off to the theatre to get your fuck on – goodness knows the real world is just too damn igneous to knock boots without first knocking the AC down a few pegs. And there's simply no sexier a cinematic Quik-E-Lube than Cidade Baixa, a righteously slick 'n' sweaty little slice of bad Brazilian juju in a too-tight halter-top and micromini-nanopants. It's ultimately an empty affair, and you have to pay for it, but the ride is so vicariously carnal that it pan-sears the doubt from your mind and serves it to you on a bed. (Just a bed. Sheets are extra.) Lower City's story borders on cliché: Best friends and strapping young working-class antiheroes Deco (Ramos) and Naldinho (Moura) eke out a living in Salvador da Bahia by piloting a baitskiff across the waterways of Brazil's eastern coastline. Enter Karinna (Braga), a hypersexual prostitute who trades her favors for a ride downstream and ends up locked in a grim ménage à trois that threatens to sever Deco and Naldinho's lifelong, near-filial bond while simultaneously shellacking one more patina of Third World cynicism to her soul. There is a cockfight; there is a knifing; there is a gun; there are drugs and liquor – and through it all there are the pulsing beats of Carlinhos Brown and Beto Villares. But mostly there is sex, or the promise of sex, or the threat of the absence of sex, which rankles and intimidates these people even while they're engaged in the act. Machado's storyline may sound uncomplicated, but it's hardly without nuance. Issues of race and class abound and tussle for prominence over libido and lust and, late in the game, love. Ramos and Moura display the unmistakable hallmarks of genuine friendship, which only makes things all the more fascinating when they begin to fall apart, burning from within on banked coals of well-stoked jealousies. (The uncoupling in Lower City is nearly as seductive as the coupling.) I'd be lying, however, if I didn't admit that Alice Braga owns this film as surely as Karinna owns these men, body and soul. It should come as no great shock that this coltish, sultry firestarter has great swaths of oozy, rapacious eros imprinted, literally, on her genes: She's the niece of the legendary actress Sonia Braga of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Kiss of the Spider Woman and every ounce the rightful inheritor of the crown of Brazil's lengthy tradition of cinematic sexo. When she's onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off of her, and when she's not, you're antsy for the next glimpse. Braga's overwhelming, titillating performance could make a eunuch bang the Pope on a Sunday. At mass. It's that hot. And so is Lower City.