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Cast and director are upside of `Lower City'

``Lower City" (``Cidade Baixa" in Portuguese) refers to the portion of Salvador, Brazil, below the 236-foot escarpment that divides it from the older, more prosperous Upper City (Cidade Alta ). Upper City has museums, palaces, and churches. Lower City has, if we believe rookie director Sergio Machado's new film, a whole lot of prostitutes.

One of these, Karinna (Alice Braga) , hitches a ride to Salvador on a boat co-owned by two unemployed drifters, Deco ( Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) . Karinna pays for the ride by first sleeping with Naldinho, then Deco, starting a love triangle with points sharp enough to eventually draw blood.

In Salvador, Karinna joins a local brothel, Deco resumes his former boxing career, and Naldinho signs on with a local crime boss. The friends can't seem to stay away from Karinna, though, and the result is a lot of enthusiastic sex in dingy buildings, bare-knuckle brawls, and mascara-tinted tears.

``Lower City" owes the inspiration for its sweaty existentialism and stylish, high-contrast photography to ``City of God," the 2002 Brazilian gangster epic, which itself was influenced by the popular Mexican films ``Amores Perros " and ``Y Tu Máma También." The connoisseur of recent south-of-the-border cinema learns to spot certain motifs: cock fights, dog fights, random violence, extreme poverty, tight clothing, full-frontal nudity, incessant smoking, drugs of every variety, very attractive young people, very ugly old people. Whether these are documentary touches or cinematic fetishes, like the vintage Chevrolets in Quentin Tarantino films, is beyond this gringo.

One area in which ``Lower City" definitely outperforms its predecessors is in its misogyny. When Karinna isn't being literally brutalized by Deco and Naldinho, she's being figuratively brutalized by Machado, whose camera lingers time and again on her bruised face. That Karinna responds sexually to her lovers' abuse tells us less about her psychology than about persistent male fantasies, including Machado's.

Despite all this, ``Lower City" is an accomplished and assured debut. Machado is especially good at sustaining momentum in a virtually plotless narrative, and his young actors, in difficult roles, never strike a false note. Everyone involved in the film seems better than the material.

The film's best moment is one of its last. In a scene of quiet, austere beauty, worthy of Antonioni, Machado places his three lead characters together in a small room and lets them sort out their divided loyalties silently, without cursing, bantering, threatening, flirting, promising, or cajoling. It's a welcome calm after the storm of words that blew the film toward its violent climax, and a pledge that greater things lie ahead for the young auteur.

Michael Hardy can be reached at mhardy@globe.com.

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