Whatever its pretensions of social relevance, Sérgio Machado's Lower City is essentially an exploitation movie, and not a half-bad one at that. Alice Braga plays a stripper and prostitute—the kind who wears bikini tops everywhere because they're easier to peel off—who trades her services to ferrymen pals Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Moura in exchange for a trip across the river to the sleazier half of the Brazilian city of Salvador. As soon as the trio arrives, Moura gets knifed in a bar fight after a drunk calls Ramos a "nigger"; then, as he recuperates back in the boat, Moura has an uncomfortable front-row seat to the torrid sexual affair between Ramos and Braga.
Machado nods to Jules And Jim in its story of two lifelong friends who let a woman both bring them closer and push them apart, and he deals with the persistent racial tensions by playing the white Moura against the black Ramos. But really, Lower City is about heat, sweat, and loss of control. Machado, who worked behind the scenes on such major Brazilian productions as Central Station and Madame Satã, saturates his directorial debut with rich, golden color, defining it with close, handheld shots that accentuate the feeling of skin on skin.
Before long, Lower City falls into the exploitation trap of making its characters suffer for their lust, but even as Machado is urging viewers to cluck their tongues over all this handsomely shot sordidness, he's crafting a fairly subtle study of how the poor get undone by the lure of easy money. Moura robs the occasional convenience store, Ramos steps into a boxing ring from time to time, and Braga uses her body as an ATM. All three have convinced themselves that they're getting paid on their own terms, but they're only drunk on a cocktail of adrenaline, sex, and punishment.