Sex and Violence and the City

Alice Braga stars as one side of a torrid love triangle in a seedy Brazilian town in
Alice Braga stars as one side of a torrid love triangle in a seedy Brazilian town in "Lower City." (Palm Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

"Lower City" could be called " 'Jules et Jim' With Crime, Sex, Blood and No French People." Does that make it sound great, or what? You've got the two-guys-one-gal thing from Truffaut and you've got sleazy crime and violence in a seedy milieu. Now, since it's set in Brazil, throw in Afro-Brazilian music, torrid weather, scabby buildings, a lot of beer and sweat and not much modesty. These are the people, after all, who invented the thong. The result is something you've seen many times before but never quite like this.

The "Lower City" itself resides in the flats of Salvador Bahia, on Brazil's east coast, and it's one of those places not on any tourist map: sultry, tropical, musical, full of strip clubs and bars and of course bars and strip clubs.

How accurate a picture director Sergio Machado paints I can't be sure, and certainly the city fathers of Salvador Bahia might have a different take on their illustrious municipality as a cheerful Web site suggests ("How to buy a business in Salvador Bahia" is one of the icons). Or maybe that's in the Upper City.

Anyway: Two guys with nothing much going on, a beautiful gal who's a hooker. It's hot, the beer is cold, and everybody's young with great bodies full to brimming with hormones. She falls in with them and for a time it's fine, but then love gets in the way of sex, and treachery in the way of loyalty. Soon there's blood on everything.

Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) love each other like brothers, and they almost are brothers, from the same mean streets, pals through the years. They jointly own a boat and cobble out a scabby living moving cargo down the river to Salvador, a bustling port city. Then they pick up a big load of trouble: Her name is Karinna (Alice Braga, Sonia's niece) , her blondness comes out of a bottle, and she's a pro. Life is tough, a gal does what a gal does. She trades sex for a ride to the big city.

But each of them makes a big mistake: They develop feelings, boys for girl, girl for boys. Even after Naldinho has taken a knife in the gut for Deco, and Deco has chased down the assailant and cut him bad (a superb scene, suggesting exactly the speed and chaos of real violence), Naldinho is upset because as he lies there mending, Deco and Karinna have a go on the upper deck of the boat. That's the movie, the push-me pull-you of these three set against a feckless life of minor criminal adventures such as robbing a drugstore. First she's with this guy, then she's with that guy, and it goes back and forth.

The movie is sexy, but in a nice, dirty way. Everyone in it is deliciously low and sleazy, and so underdressed in the blazing heat that they are just dying to strip. The sex -- a lot of it -- is nearly explicit; you certainly understand who is doing what to whom, and what she's doing back to them.

Possibly the milieu may be traced through the connection of Walter Salles (director of "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries"), who produced "Lower City" as well as "City of God." Machado is channeling the latter film, and even if "Lower City" hasn't the reach and scope of that tragic 2002 epic, he shares its director Fernando Meirelles's ability to work up a good slum.

The best thing about the movie isn't its story or even its performances or even beautiful Alice Braga's many nude scenes: it's the sense of being in a real place you wouldn't ever visit, or want to -- a throbbing urban landscape, part freak show, part commerce of exploitation, part sensual paradise. There's not a single plot point that could be called a surprise, but when you leave the theater, you will have sweated through your shirt.

Lower City (110 minutes, in Portuguese with subtitles at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for drug use, profanity, nudity, sexuality and violence, including a grueling cockfight.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company