Introducing Sérgio Machado's Cidade Baixa / Lower City, Alice Braga—niece of the radiant Sonia Braga—stated, "Sérgio always says when he introduces the film that he and Karim [Ainouz], the co-writer, they wanted to know who were the young people in Brazil nowadays and where they are and what they do. He chose to do Salvador because it's where he was born. So he portrayed a love story."
Returning to the podium for a Q&A after the screening, Alice made us laugh by admitting she was even more shy now that we had seen her naked! I certainly respected her bravery! Of course, if I looked that hot and that beautiful, I could afford to be brave!
Asked how long it had taken to make the film, Alice explained all three actors rehearsed with an acting coach, the boys for six weeks, she for three (she had been traveling and came into the project later), followed by eight weeks of shooting.
One of the audience members had heard that most of the cast of City of God were, in fact, non-actors and wondered if that was the case with Alice? How had she become involved in that project?
"It was funny," she replied, she was just doing theater when they cast her in City of God, she had never acted in a movie and was trying to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Being cast in Lower City was equally as "funny" and Alice claimed she ended up in this film "in a really really crazy way." She was coming to the U.S. to do Oscar press for City of God. The day she was leaving to the airport, Sérgio phoned and said, "Hey, I have a film!" He explained they had a girl they were considering for the role of Karina and that she was great, but, he kept looking at her and saying, "It's not her, it's not her." So he was still looking for the actress to play Karina and wanted to see what Alice might do, could she come and audition? She said, sure, but first she had to go to the U.S. for a week. She came to San Francisco, her first time here, met Carlos Bolado to negotiate Sólo Dios Sabe, then returned to Brazil, accepted the role of Karina in Lower City and worked on that for three months before launching into Sólo Dios Sabe; a "quite crazy" time in her life.
Alice qualified that Karina was her first true opportunity to act, because even though her character in City of God was beautiful and close to her, the director had purposely insisted they not act, he didn't want them to try to do anything. He just wanted her to be a girl living in a different time, in the '70s, that's all. Being Karina was totally different because she was 20 years old—practically a girl—but the rough circumstances of her life had made her a strong woman.
Asked about how the ending of the film was configured, Alice admitted it was an editing decision. The actors were given a script to work with—and Alice bemoaned how long it took her to learn the script—but the script was more to help the acting coach develop the delivery of their lines in a natural way. "We knew what the character needed to talk," Alice explained. Once they got the natural delivery down, then they began to shoot, varying from the script. The film had alternate endings. In one ending they shot a scene with all three of them walking the streets as if they had ended up staying together but it was decided that was too happy—and inauthentic—an ending for a film like Lower City. Sérgio decided to experiment with a more open ending. So first, Alice described, "He did something that was really bizarre on the set. He put a kid dancing and I was like, 'Why? How come you're going to end up with a kid dancing? It doesn't say anything.' "
They shot a lot of film the day they were filming the ending and what was funny was that Sérgio didn't decide until seven months after they had ended filming what he actually wanted. The final close-up of Karina's eyes was shot seven months after the rest of the film. Sérgio had decided that he didn't like Karina looking down at the end, he wanted her character to look up because she was a survivor, a fighter, and she wasn't about to go down no matter what. So Alice had to dye her hair blonde again just to get the final shot.
So as many ways as the ending could have gone, it was decided in the editing not the filming. The script didn't have this ending. "It's hard, isn't it, to do a film?" Alice mused, "Because so many things happen on the set that you can make another film." So many things from the script never made it to the film. "Like at the beginning," Alice offered by example, "the woman that just sell her the sandwich, it started the film with the two of them having sex with her just to show that they used to have women that they used to share." Sérgio elected to cut this out to focus on the triangle with Karina.
One young woman in the audience expressed her surprise to hear Alice state that Karina was her first true acting role. She wondered what it was like for Alice to have to act in the nude, "very compromised." The young woman praised Alice for coming off so natural, so effortless, something she'd rarely seen in a debut performance.
Alice thanked the young woman and admitted the nudity was a huge challenge. "When I read the script," she joked, "I was like, 'Whoa…!' " But the moment she read the script Alice knew she really wanted to play the role. She knew she would learn and grow as an actress, as well as a human being, because Karina, as a character, was such a strong person.
Let alone that she would get to work with the "amazing" Maria Fatima Toledo—who served as the acting coach in such films as City of God, Central Station, Hector Babenco's Pixote, and Andrucha Waddington's Eu Tu Eles—and Wagner Moura, one of her favorite Brazilian actors, and Sérgio Machado, who had worked with Walter Salles for many years. So she knew Lower City was a really good project to be involved in and that they would take care of her as a new actress. The moment she got into the rehearsals with Fatima and the other actors, she learned to shake off her fear and shyness, and to not let anything block her performance.
Before stepping on to the set Sérgio had a huge meeting with the whole crew, explaining that the crew would be reduced for the nude scenes, because Sergio knew how difficult it would be to achieve the intimacy required by the film. He spoke to the crew and asked them to help the actors because they were going to be exposed, physically and emotionally, and needed the crew's protection.
The moment the actors got onto the set, Alice described, everyone was so helpful, it was such a beautiful environment, everyone was taking such good care of them and everyone wanted so badly to film the story that Alice felt completely secure. Before shooting, or every time she had 15 minutes off, the acting coach would be on the set to give her exercises. The entire crew focused and prepared, just like the actors, so the moment Alice had to disrobe, she wasn't even thinking about it, so caught up and crazy about what was happening, that she completely forgot she was naked. The thing that has made her really happy in retrospect is that everyone that sees the film acknowledges her courage.
As an acting coach, Alice says Maria Fatima Toledo believes in connecting actors to the feelings of their characters. She wants to put those feelings into the actor's skin, their body, so their performance will be natural. The process is intense. By way of example, Alice says the scene where Naldinho discovers Karina has moved out of their Lower City apartment, and he hits the door and breaks the mirror, wasn't planned. Wagner Moura was so intensely into his character's passion that he just shattered the mirror with his fist. It's the kind of acting that Sérgio wanted, to be really true to the story, so the audience who sees the film will see that these people exist, and believe in their existence, that they could go to Bahia and find Karina in the streets.
Toledo leads the actors through many exercises, such as Kundalini yoga which is a specific exercise to open the chakras. She encouraged the actors to dance a lot to get into their bodies; Alice danced all day long. She also did exercises to feel the weight of life. Since Karina is a character who has been lonely since she was a kid and has carried that weight of loneliness her whole life, Toledo guided Alice through exercises that helped her achieve that feeling of world weariness. In one exercise Alice used to lay down on the floor and one of the guys from the crew would lay down on top of her and not let her go until she was desperate. "He was the weight of life on my body," she explained, "so that I felt desperate for air."
One woman—who had traveled to the city of Salvador where the film was shot—wanted to know why Sérgio Machado had chosen Salvador as the film's particular setting? And why he had focused exclusively on this underbelly neighborhood when Salvador has so much more to offer?
Alice was glad the woman brought up that inquiry. She answered that Sérgio was from Salvador so he wanted to show it in his first feature, because he loves the city, and even loves the world where Karina and Naldinho live, Cidade Baixa, Lower City, which is the name of the neighborhood. Alice said Sérgio was going to be really glad that the woman had made that comment because he didn't want to shoot Salvador like everyone shoots Salvador. He just wanted to show Lower City, a neighborhood that no one gets to know because it's not on the tourist trail, a neighborhood that Alice describes in Portuguese as sugmundo, a world that society sometimes forgets and purposely hides. Even those places in Salvador that are on the tourist trail, like the elevator that is so often depicted on postcards, Sérgio shot from different angles in hopes of breaking the postcard's perspective.
Understanding that City of God is something of a contemporary barometer of Brazilian film, Alice asserts nonetheless that Brazilians want more than anything to tell a story, even if it is about common everyday people that are specifically Brazilian. City of God opened a lot of doors internationally. It was a film that showed that reality—even a negative reality—could be depicted artistically, professionally, with really well-done editing, cinematography, the works. Alice hopes the Brazilian film industry can keep going and maintain its current pace. She praises new directors like Machado and Marcelo Gomes, whose film Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus has been receiving international attention. It's a completely different kind of film than Lower City but Alice feels that diversity in the filmmaking is good. "We need to believe more in our country."