Lower City (Portuguese)

The dull, dimly lit Brazilian drama “Lower City” has some distractions like cockfights and barroom brawls in it, but don’t be fooled. The film’s only message is that it never works out when two men are sleeping with the same woman at the same time. So maybe those cockfights are a metaphor, not a distraction.

Whatever the case, our heroes, such as they are, are Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), young virile Brazilians who own a boat and drift from one place to the next, taking whatever work they can find and having sex with whatever women they can sweet-talk. Deco is black and Naldinho is white, but that’s about where their differences end. Both are broody, macho types, thin characters painted as being awfully fond of each other (in a masculine, friendly way) but given little dimension beyond that.

They meet a hooker named Karinna (Alice Braga) and have sex with her in exchange for money, which is the usual arrangement for someone in Karinna’s profession. She gets attached to the fellas, though, pining for them while off doing her business, and soon she is back in their company, not as a prostitute but as a quasi-girlfriend.

You can perhaps see the trouble this would lead to. While Karinna would be happy with the occasional menage a trois, Deco and Naldinho are afraid such an event would be totally gay, dude. So there is a lot of trading off and back-and-forthing, with both men slowly becoming jealous of each other. I suppose it doesn’t help that while Naldinho was in bed recovering from a knife wound — which he got defending Deco from a racist attacker — Deco and Karinna were on the floor next to him, doin’ it. That sort of indecorous behavior goes a long way toward ruining a friendship.

What is unclear is why writer/director Sergio Machado thought we would like any of these people. Naldinho earns a little sympathy for saving his friend’s life, but all three characters are otherwise inscrutable, shallow and unlikable. Furthermore, though they all purport to adore each other, we never see them actually enjoying themselves. Their relationship jumps right to the angst phase, omitting the we-had-joy-we-had-fun period altogether — unless the sequence where they conspire to defraud some of Karinna’s unsuspecting johns is supposed to convey their joie de vivre. (What it actually conveys is that the trio are conniving and perhaps sociopathic.)

So yes, it can be hard when your girlfriend is a hooker. It’s even harder when your hooker girlfriend is also the girlfriend of your best friend, and when you have nascent unexpressed homoerotic love for that best friend. (Deco and Naldinho are the types who would beat me up for saying that, but it’s totally true.) A turgid, ineffective drama, no matter how spicy it is sex-wise, cannot make these truisms interesting.

D+ (1 hr., 37 min.; Portuguese with subtitles; R, a lot of strong sexuality and nudity, a lot of profanity, some fairly strong violence.)