Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lower City

Wagner Moura and Lázaro Ramos, Lower City (Courtesy Madman Films)

Lower City (Cidade Baixa) is a gutsy and challenging film in the vein of City of God. It has a similar energy with frenetic camera work and it’s depiction of people at the lower end of the food chain. It is set on location in various seaports of northeast Brazil, showcasing beautiful vistas (though rarely in postcard fashion) and urban decay that I found very photogenic. It wasn’t as dark or frenzied as City of God.

Producer Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station), director Sérgio Machado and writer Karim Ainouz are regular collaborators. Machado wrote for Ainouz’s Madame Sata (2002), which had a limited release in Australia last year and both Machado and Ainouz wrote for Salles’ Behind The Sun (1998). The style and subject of Lower City had much in common with Madame Sata, though the latter was based on a true character (Madame Sata was a bandit-turned-transvestite performer earlier last century).

Right from the start, sex is a confronting element of Lower City, as we follow the exploits of a lascivious young woman, Karinna (Alice Braga). She is unnervingly blasé about selling herself in exchange for a ride with a pair of men, Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) on their boat to Salvador.

Deco and Naldinho are lifelong friends and strugglers. We get glimpses into their questionable background. One is attempting to reform while the other appears to be sinking into bad habits. This is not their only conflict. While they profess their brotherly love for each other, jealously grows over each man’s sexual interest in Karinna.

Deco and Naldinho are of different races. An early scene of a cock fight between a black and a white bird seems prophetic. The deterioration of their relationship was a major focus of the story, and it was well detailed with subtlety. Much of it was by body language such as glaring looks rather than the spoken word. The actors’ performances were all passionate, credible and their characters well-developed and interesting. The film’s depiction of the darker side of a society was a fresh change to the homogenous, polished middle-class of Hollywood.

The film seemed to struggle slightly at times with continuity and editing but remained emotionally gripping throughout. The camera work was mostly hand-held and I found it a bit jolting at times. The exotic music – a sort of neo-Afro-jazz – was a terrific blend of traditional and contemporary and was used to very good effect.

There was a satisfying level of ambiguity in the film, both in motives and the finale. We are not handed everything on a plate for immediate consumption, so we can come out of the cinema ruminating about the experience.

Eroticism is a significant but incidental element in the film, used as a vehicle for revealing aspects of the characters, and how destructive it can be to a relationship. While love triangles are not a new subject, its depiction in Lower City was achieved with depth, originality, realism and emotional honesty. This aspect was a little reminiscent of the scenario in Y Tu Mama Tambien, but in a deeper and much seedier way.

Lower City, despite its depictions of sex and violence, is at heart both gentle and non-judgmental. For me, it didn’t reach the greatness of City of God (to which it is being compared), though it really is a very different film. Serious film-goers will appreciate it for its sensual and raw eroticism, ambiguity, grittiness, sense of humanity and emotional depth. It is well worth seeing.

Dir: Sérgio Machado Rating: R Duration: 98 min Genre: drama Language: Portuguese Country: Brazil Release: 30/11/06, limited Dist: Madman Films Prod Co: VideoFilmes Prod: Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Walter Salles Scr: Sérgio Machado, Karim Ainouz Sound Des: Leandro Lima, Rômulo Drummond Phot: Toca Seabra Ed: Isabela Monteiro de Castro Prod Des: Marcos Pedroso Mus: Carlinhos Brown, Beto Villares Cast: Lázaro Ramos, Wagner Moura, Alice Braga, José Dumont

Official website IMDB


delon melville said...

Hi Paul, good review again, perhaps I should watch the film first then agree after.

Thought the cockfight was a heavyhanded foreshadow, not recalling you review at the time, but a beautiful scene, albeit in brutality, and wonderfully shot.

My only gripe about the direction is the last scene. The tension was palpable, but I would have played it out differently that having them sit opposite. Too twee by half.

Also, I needed to see the bloke with the bottle in his neck or stomach. Either that, or a better misc-en-scene. As it was, it just looked like the budget for make-up and effects was cut and the DP had to pan above the action. I understand "less i more" and why you do not necessarily show the action, but you direct the scene in that manner. This was like the projectionist scewed the projector a few ratios down and you missed the action. In simple terms he dircted the scene for action, but the action was missing, and then one becomes cynical about trivial things like make-up budgets.

Good work again Paul.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments and compliments, Delon. What is your interest or involvement in cinema? You appear to have more than just a cinema-goer's knowledge of the technical aspects of film-making.

The cock-fight was brutal, though I thought it added a grittiness consistent with the film. It also established the type of characters we were dealing with. I read that no cocks were harmed. It was all editing, which I found effective.

It's been a while since I saw the film and I don't remember the details about the bottle. I do remember that I found faults at different parts of the film that I was prepared to overlook. I tend to be receptive to flawed films that take risks. This film was not exceptional, but it had a gritty vitality and sensuality to it.