The themes of jealousy, lust, and sex, and their consequences, are not exactly novel. But they are so central to our experience as human beings that a great number of films have taken these on as their principal subject matter. Lower City, the directorial debut for Sergio Machado, is yet another take on this topic. The film follows two childhood friends, Deco and Naldinho, who, on their way to the town of Salvador, meet and offer a ride to Karinna, a stripper who is going to the same town in search of work. In exchange for the ride, Karinna has sex with both men on the overnight journey. This is the start of an intense love triangle in which the two men and Karinna become caught. The incredibly solid bond between Deco and Naldinho, as a result, gradually self-destructs as the story progresses.
The competent manner with which the film demonstrates the initial deep connection between the two men sets the stage pretty well for testing their friendship. The movie is no doubt intent on exploring this tension (and eventual seething anger) between the two friends as the main result of this love triangle. But the main question I had while watching this film, and to some extent still have, is this: is this a love triangle? Or is it, as I believe it to be, a lust triangle? If it is the former, then the writers and director has not adequately motivated the feelings of love both friends are supposed to have for Karinna.
As I've said, however, I think it's a question of lust, and about how such a seemingly die-hard brotherly love can break down so catastrophically because of such basic, but strong, animal urges. This is shown in a simple metaphor near the beginning of the film, when the friends are on their way to Salvador, and stop in a town to unload cargo. They watch and place bets on a cock fight (to make it obvious, it pits a white rooster against a black rooster, the skin colours of Naldinho and Deco, respectively). Clearly a foreshadow to later animosity between the two men, it also seems to ask in hindsight, what are they really fighting over? In this example, the roosters are motivated by nothing more than their animal instincts. Later in the movie, Naldinho himself asserts that Deco should not be upset by Karinna's departure at one point because she is just a prostitute, and the two friends agree in another scene that their "friendship is worth more that pussy". However, it seems that the film shows that this is not always the case, and examines exactly when this moral notion collapses and our genetic predispositions take over, sometimes beyond our control. The movie is not about the love triangle, but instead uses the situation, when it becomes that overbearingly, emotionally excessive, as a test for human rationality. One of the main ways the film succeeds in accomplishing this is by not really delving very deep inside Karinna's mind; this is more or less the case until the remarkably affecting end of the movie, when it is up to her to, quite literally, clean up the mess, of which she is the center. The film does well, however, not to blame any one person for this sorrowful situation.
I could be reaching a bit far with my take on things. I don't think I am, but the fact I am still left wondering about this somewhat is perhaps my main complaint: maybe a little more could have been done to really solidify the point of the movie. It's a pretty minor quibble, however -- a bit of thought after watching it makes things fairly clear, and I'm no genius. The direction and editing are mostly well done, apart from a few occasions when I found myself asking, "how did he find him all of a sudden?" or "how did he get there before he did?" However, any ambiguity in the progression of the storyline, or in the film in general, is definitely not the fault of the actors. Lazaro Ramos, Wagner Moura, and Alice Braga (as Deco, Naldinho, and Karinna, respectively) do very effective jobs in their roles, bringing out the characters they portray with great skill.
Regardless of the exact subtext, Lower City is an engrossing movie -- not to mention incredibly steamy. It's a good first effort by Sergio Machada, pointing to a promising future for this director, as well as for the actors in the film.
- Robert Ferdman | 2006-09-28