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Claustrophobic threesome movie has tired plot, inconsistent characters, but high sexual tension
Reading the IMDb comments from non-Brazilian reviewers, I get the impression "Cidade Baixa" has been mismarketed internationally -- it's far from the ambition, impact, range or scope of "City of God" or "Central Station". It's rather a modest chamber movie about a love triangle setting apart lifelong friends Deco (the incredibly overrated Lázaro Ramos, here in a one-note-so-minimalist-it's-really-lifeless performance) and Naldinho (intense, charismatic Wagner Moura) over the sexual attention and ultimately the "true" love of stripper Karinna (newcomer Alice Braga, sexy, lovely, inexperienced and unconvincing).
Director Sérgio Machado's only previous solo feature effort was "Onde a Terra Acaba", a well-researched documentary on Brazilian legendary filmmaker Mário Peixoto and his single finished film, the 1931 classic "Limite". Like many directors who cross the bridge from documentaries to fiction, Machado here is completely taken over by "the magic of acting". While Machado's undisguised fascination with his three lead stars is overwhelming, the characters in "Cidade Baixa" lack real essence -- the emotional outbursts are there, but the motivations are never clear. The great performance and best designed character comes from veteran José Dumont: he creates a multi-layered, throbbing character in five minutes and has more truth and energy than the three stars combined.
The plot is painfully predictable, it has been told before (and better) countless times. The film's ultimate point -- that a threesome is as good an arrangement as any -- is only shyly hinted at, and probably won't come across for many viewers, but the sexual tension is tangible the whole time. The film is professionally accomplished, but I'm not sure the director's choice for claustrophobic settings and overuse of close-up shots is helpful to the story-- indeed it's a shame that we hardly get to see the open spaces and the entrancing population of Cidade Baixa (the lower part of the city of Salvador, capital of Bahia), which, after all, is the title of the movie! If you blink, you'll miss the falling-to-pieces but still impressive colonial architecture, and you may not see the low-life poverty and fight-for-life vibrancy typical of that neighborhood, because the camera only has eyes for the three stars. Even the Lacerda elevator (the architectural landmark that divides the Lower from Upper City) is seen but for a few seconds. And, for those of us who know and love Salvador for its magical spiritual and carnal energy, the life-affirming music, the irrepressible live-and-let-live savoir-vivre, it's really hard to believe how grim, bleak and sullen all these characters are.
Anyway, the film is never boring, has some good scenes and it's thankfully unpretentious, but the loose ending can be a letdown for many viewers. Maybe next time the talented but still unimposing Sérgio Machado will find a finer balance to his elements, adding a thicker, less tired plot and widening his framings to fully explore his locations, all of which deserves his attention as much as his cast.
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