Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Lower City (Cidade Baixa) (2005)

The director left the camera on 100x zoom

Let’s get the plot out of the way. Two best buddies use their dinghy boat for cross-province smuggling operations – sneaking across borders anything from contraband to prostitutes. When a sexy pole dancer hops on for a ride and offers pays in kind, a torrid relationship is formed when the two buddies fall for her. It might be useful to take note the cardboard cut-outs that these characters come from: Karinna’s the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold, while Naldinho, a Latino, and Deco, a Black, grew up together as childhood friends. Throughout the film, the trio continuously run into the two inevitable facts of life: sex (almost every 5 minutes) and death (in the form of the warfare between all of them, and between them and the city). Will the hot chick destroy the two men’s friendship? Or will the trio come to some kind of happy arrangement?

Story-wise, there isn’t much to say about Lower City, because hardly anything happens aside from lots of sex between Karinna and Naldinho, Karinna and Deco, and Karinna and her clients. I’m sure this film could have come up with a deeper, more substantial story: after all, the classic Jules et Jim had the same premise of a woman coming between two very close friends. And I’m sure there was a chance to focus on the uncomfortably close relationship between Naldinho and Deco, beyond the sole token comment from Karinna about their "husband and wife" relationship. Sergio Machado, however, is interested in developing none of these. He’s in it for the grimy, seedy underground life of the trio. And the sex.

Machado is also very interested in his handheld video camera. Which he sets to 100x zoom mode on his actors. 99.9% of the time. While jerking the camera like a maniac. It’s some kind of aesthetic statement, I’m sure, but repeatedly plunging a salad fork into your eyeball gives you an equally stylistic experience. Perhaps you don’t get the picture, but then again, neither did I. How could anyone? There is no background in the frames. There’s no foreground either. Everything frame is an ugly, unnatural super close-up of the main actors, with no mid-shots to give a proper perspective and framing. In fact, forget about the sex. With the 100x zoom effect, the sex is absolutely unsexy and looks like dislocated body parts getting thrown together. That’s right – the camera zooms in so much you can’t even fit a torso into the frame. The lack of perspective and proportion makes some sex scenes look like fight scenes, and when Deco is fighting in the boxing ring against some opponents, you can’t really tell if that’s just a sex scene.

However, I’m quite sure this movie takes place in some Brazilian city. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell which city, or where in the city. Even when Naldinho spends a few scenes walking through a crowded street thronging with multitudes, guess what? You can’t see anything because he takes up 80% of the screen.

This film is an insult to the visual senses, and Machado should brush up on his screen composition, or just read the manual for his video camera. I guess we should be thankful that there is no IMAX version of Lower City. The camera technique might be suitable for a completely incomprehensible "arty" short film that you can watch at the Substation every first Tuesday of the month, but dragged to a feature length running time, you’ll feel like you just watched the cinema equivalent of a vomit-inducing thrill ride. If you watch this movie and stay till the end, it is likely that you’ll want to stab Machado through the eye for inflicting this unwatchable, poorly written, poorly executed, and very pretentious film on the world.

First published at incinemas on 28 September 2006

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