Far from the violent favelas of City of God, Sérgio Machado's Brazilian love triangle takes place up the sleepy coast from Rio. Best pals Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) transport small loads of cargo along the shoreline of Bahia province, a past life of crime perhaps one or two ports behind them. Deco is black and Naldinho white, and they call each other "brother" unself- consciously, having apparently raised themselves together since childhood. They live in harmony on their vessel, almost like Huck and Jim on the raft. Provided they've got money enough for diesel and beer, they can just keep sailing, free, forever. Then on board comes blond young hooker Karinna (Alice Braga), who knocks them off their keel. She's willing to trade sex for her passage toward the city of Salvador, and neither Deco nor Naldinho makes a big deal, at first, of punching her ticket.
Cash or barter—it's all about the same in an economy that, absent a colonial power, still seems to operate by the rules of Brazil's colonial past. As each of the three separately hustles to survive, events keep forcing them together again. A cockfight, a barroom brawl that ends in a stabbing, a drugstore robbery that ends in a pants-wetting, a rigged boxing match—everything's governed by the scraped-knee scramble for subsistence. That both Deco and Naldinho should end up falling for a woman they frankly call a whore (and who frankly appraises herself as such) is treated matter-of-factly. In this world, it's like falling for an accountant. Braga, in a fairly bold, bare-all performance, is nobody's idea of an office worker, of course. She's neither gold-hearted hooker nor femme fatale, just a pragmatist. "I can't stay away from you or him," she says to Naldinho. Their three-way dilemma of sexual interdependency might've made a fun and trashy telenovela, but Lower City is more keyed to tropical naturalism. It steams along without making big waves, a ship carrying no surprises in its hold. BRIAN MILLER