Brazilians used to joke that national films always had to feature ‘naked women’. That sarcastic comment was particularly recurring in the 1970s, when an erotic/comedic genre known as pornochanchada marked the national industry with a very strong sexual element. Underneath the irony lies the dubious relationship the country has with its sexually-charged image as a nation, which mixes pride (for being ‘beautiful’) with shame (for being seen as ‘noble savages’).
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 the friends fall in love with the sexy-but-tender beauty.
Karina becomes a becomes a prostitute in Salvador, which adds an element of masochism to the complicated love triangle. But prostitution is never used as the source of any conflict or the launch pad of a social-realist discourse on class exploitation. One of the film’s merits is in fact its accurate portrait of hustling on Salvador’s harbour area, the Lower City of the title.
Of course, Karina’s choice of work and the fact that she can’t make up her mind about which of the boys she loves more don’t make life easier for anyone: 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, or at least tries to. But for some reason, the film seems to be devoid of any depth. It just doesn’t linger in the memory, despite its naturalism and the authenticity of the dialogue. Perhaps the same factors that make it technically good fail Lower City in artistic and emotional terms; perhaps it is too flawless. It’s the kind of film that young film school students love as well as fans of boxing as a metaphor.