Sultry Karina (Alice Braga) casually trades sexual favours for a boat trip to Salvador with best friends Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura). At a gambling den, a crazy old man (José Dumont) stabs Naldinho, forcing Deco to retaliate before they flee the scene. Karina decides to stay and help save Naldinho’s life, after which she and Deco succumb to a passionate clinch on the floor. Thus begins a tumultuous three-way relationship as Karina flits between Deco and Naldinho and inadvertently drives a wedge between the two friends.
City of God (2002) re-established Brazil as a country capable of vibrant, exciting cinema and Lower City draws, at least superficially, from its tried and tested elements, being set in the heady world of petty crime amidst the Salvadorian slums and strobe-lit clubs full of topless pole-dancers. It also features a steamy turn from one of City of God’s breakout stars: Alice Braga, who has since gone on to appear in mainstream films including I Am Legend (2007) and Predators (2010). Scenes of vibrant street life impart a compellingly restless energy to proceedings, underlined by the palpable sexual tension between the three leads. In his first feature, former documentary filmmaker Sérgio Machado takes a freewheeling attitude towards sex and relationship and implies a threesome can be as solid a romantic arrangement as any.
However, for all the flashes of grit and style, Lower City remains an oddly trite exercise in passion by numbers. Imagine Jules et Jim (1961) with the sex cranked up to eleven but all the poetry removed. There is plenty of posturing but we never truly get inside these characters’ heads. Each remains an enigma. Deco trains to become a boxer but is told to throw his first fight. Naldinho drifts into petty crime, leading to an amusing scene where he robs a late night pharmacy and is alternately exasperated by and takes pity on the hapless store clerk. And Karina continues to shift her attentions between both men whilst servicing a number of paying clients (“Hanging out with you two is fun but I’ve got bills to pay”), even after she discovers she is pregnant, with no idea who the father is.
Machado and his co-writer Karim Ainouz craft a rather ramshackle narrative, presumably meant to match the capricious nature of his three main characters, but this results in annoyingly vague sequences that one hesitates to call plot twists. Notably an odd scene where a middle-aged American client urges Karina to beat him before he abruptly commits suicide. This unfocused drama cops out with an inconclusive ending sure to strain the patience of anyone with anything invested in its quixotic characters.