Alice Braga in Lower City
Brazilians used to joke that national films always had to feature 'naked women'. That comment was particularly relevant in the 1970s, when an erotic/comedic genre known as pornochanchada marked the national industry with a very strong sexual element. The comment also stems from the dubious relationship the country has with its sexually-charged image as a nation, which mixes pride with shame.
Novo Cinema Novo, the new phase of Brazilian cinema started in the mid-90s with the success of Central Station, hasn’t resorted to much eroticism to market its films, although the new film Lower City (out 2/12) seems to usher in a wind of change. Produced by Walter Salles’s company, the film seems to hark back to the ‘good old days’ of naked breasts and colour-saturated sex scenes, while also adopting an international visual grammar of ‘indie cinema’ with hints of road movie. It also features the mandatory coke-snorting scenes.
The story is hinged around a love triangle formed by Karina (Alice Braga), who picks up best friends Naldinho (Wagner Moura) and Deco (Lázaro Ramos) on her way from Vitória to Salvador, Brazil’s most African city as well as the symbolic cradle of the country. Karina has sex with both men and they both fall in love with the sexy-but-tender beauty who becomes a prostitute in Salvador in order to make ends meet. Prostitution is not used as the source of any conflict or the launch pad of a social-realist discourse on class exploitation. It’s just a given and its representation is rather authentic. Given Karina’s choice of work and the fact that she can’t make up her mind about which of the boys she loves more, all that is left to Naldinho and Deco is to fight over their muse. Literally.
Lower City ticks all the boxes of the modern slick independent feature: it looks good, the acting is good too (especially Moura’s) and it nods to the stylistic mannerisms of the Novelle Vague. But for some reason, the film seems to be devoid of any depth or real psychological dimension. Perhaps the same factors that make it technically good fail Lower City in artistic terms. It’s the kind of film that will please readers of Sunday supplement magazines as well as fans of boxing as a metaphor.