Lower City (cidade Baixa)

on June 16, 2006 by Sheri Linden
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A raw love triangle set in the mean, impoverished streets of Brazil's Salvador de Bahia, "Lower City" boasts a stylishly rough-hewn sensibility and steamy performances. The script by director Sergio Machado and Karim Ainouz, who previously partnered on "Madame Sata," has a sure feel for the unforgiving milieu and the young central characters, still tender beneath their hardened survivors' skin. Beyond the atmospherics, however, is a run-of-the-mill melodrama.

Alice Braga (Sonia Braga's niece) plays Karinna, the 20-year-old hooker who ignites the passions of two young men, lifelong friends Deco (Lazaro Ramos, who played the title role in "Madame Sata") and Naldinho (Wagner Moura). For a lift to Salvador in their small cargo boat, she agrees to service them, individually, with the "basics," rather predictably upsetting the time-tested balance between them. During a nighttime stop at cockfights in Cachoeira, Karinna picks up a driver for the next leg of her trip. But before she can leave the already captivated boys in the dust, she discovers Naldinho badly injured after defending Deco against a belligerent, racist drunk. Her heart-of-gold instincts surface as she tends to his wounds, and the three become a family of sorts, with Karinna playing musical beds when she's not performing strobe-light stripteases at a seedy club.

Ramos looks suitably wounded as the love-struck Deco, who vents his frustration in sparring sessions at the gym. Determined to stay clean, he refuses job offers from a small-time crime boss, while Naldinho takes a more pragmatic approach, believing the dangerous work will lift him from poverty. Flush with cash, he insists that Karinna choose between him and Deco -- no simple matter. Machado and his actors bring their netherworld to gritty, if sometimes overheated, life. But the dramatic rewards are slim as the story moves toward its brutal yet hopeful conclusion. Starring Alice Braga, Lazaro Ramos and Wagner Moura. Directed by Sergio Machado. Written by Sergio Machado and Karim Ainouz. Produced by Mauricio Andrade Ramos and Walter Salles. A Palm release. Drama. Portuguese-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, some violence and drug use. Running time: 98 min

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