Lower City (Cidade Baixa) Review
Brazil. Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) jointly own a cargo boat that plies its trade up the north-eastern coast. Then Karinna (Alice Braga), a young hitchhiker, arrives. The two men agree to give her a lift to Salvador in return for her having sex with both of them. Karinna is about to travel onwards when Naldinho gets into a brawl after a cockfight and is stabbed, and Deco fights off the assailant. The three of them escape for Salvador.
Several Brazilian films have seen British distribution in the last few years, including City of God (which featured Alice Braga, niece of 70s star Sonia Braga) and Carandiru (which featured Ramos and Moura). The producer is Walter Salles, director of Central Station, on which Sérgio Machado served as his assitant. Lower City benefits from a setting less familiar to our eyes – in other words, it’s set somewhere different to Sao Paolo or Rio. This is a very sensual film, much of shot handheld at night under fluorescent or neon light, with much emphasis on the texture of skin – and sweat. It has a febrile atmosphere: you sense that violence could erupt at any moment. Toca Seabra’s camerawork and Marcos Pedroso’s art direction make strong contributions. Lower City is a character-led film though, with a rather open-ended conclusion that leaves certain plotlines unresolved.
However, ultimately this is a familiar story: two men and the woman who comes between them. The sexy free spirit who’s more than willing to put out is a stock figure – and more than a little of a male fantasy. That’s not to say that Alice Braga doesn’t give shadings to her role, as she does. But on the other hand, Machado (who wrote the script as well as directed, his fiction-feature debut) seems to fight shy of exploring the bond between the two men – a non-sexual homoeroticism that the writer-director of another recent film I’ve seen (Where the Truth Lies) was certainly bolder in dealing with. It’s also a very male film in another way: while Braga is seen naked on several occasions, none of the men are filmed below the waist, a brief shot of Ramos’s buttocks aside. Just for once, race isn't really an issue, though Naldinho is white and Deco black.
I’ll finish with a couple of specific warnings to the susceptible. There are several scenes set in nightclubs which employ strobe lighting. Also, the cockfight scene will no doubt be upsetting to some. Presumably it’s faked, or the BBFC would not have passed it, but it does look very realistic.
Verve’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. Lower City’s aspect ratio is 1.85:1, and the transfer here, anamorphically enhanced, is correct. (In fact, there’s a very thin black bar at the top and bottom, so to be pedantic it’s 1.80:1, but that isn’t a cinematic ratio.) The transfer is faithful to the film’s use of vivid colours and also its grain, which was no doubt inevitable due to the way it was filmed, though it’s rather too soft, especially in longer shots.
The soundtrack is a disappointment, a 2.0 (Prologic Dolby Surround) mix when the film has a Dolby Digital soundtrack. To be fair, I’m not sure a 5.1 mix would make much difference as this isn’t the most adventurous example of sound design, pretty much monophonic with music and ambience on the surrounds.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is oddly brighter than the feature. It makes the film seem more like a thriller than it actually is.
Lower City has plenty of interest and is, its flaws notwithstanding, a worthy addition to the recent crop of Latin American films. Verve’s DVD is decent but not outstanding, but is certainly worth renting or picking up cheaply.