Lower City, which made its first appearance last year at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is the feature film debut of Brazilian writer-director Sérgio Machado. In terms of content, Machado's story is as old as the hills: Two friends fall in love with the same girl; complications ensue. What makes his film original is its setting and context. Lower City takes place and was shot mostly in Salvador, Brazil, the capital of the north-eastern state of Bahia (the "Cidade Baixa" -- Lower City -- is literally the lower half of the city, separated from the "Cidade Alto" by a vertical distance of nearly 300 feet). The city is built around a natural harbor, and water is ever-present in the film, lending it an often heart-stopping beauty, despite the grinding poverty with which the movie and its story are permeated.
Beneath the blanket of that poverty live Machado's main characters. Deco and Naldinho (played, respectively, by Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Moura) are life-long friends who have rarely been apart. They grew up together, have seen one another through unspecific dark times, and at the moment the film begins, they own a small boat and scratch out a living making short freight runs in and around Salvador's harbor. There's a tremendous, unforced warmth between the two men, possibly aided by the fact that Ramos and Moura are best friends off-screen, as well. Deco and Naldinho call each other "brother," drink together, protect one another, and are close enough to share sexual experiences without tension or awkwardness -- at least at first. They are also from different races (Deco is black, while Naldinho is white), but in the glorious racial patchwork that is Salvador, no one even notices.