Madame Satã | Movie Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Madame Satã 

The Man from Rio

Maybe it's because this is his first film, but director and screenwriter Karim Aïnouz makes a tactical error in Madame Satã: He doesn't tell us who Madame Satã is -- not until the film is over, and by then, it's too late to have any appreciation of the rather disjointed story that has come before.

"Madame Satã" (the name appropriated from Cecil B. DeMille's musical comedy Madam Satan) was one of several personas adopted by João Francisco dos Santos, a notorious Brazilian drag queen who in the mid-20th century fused African and Western rhythms, myths and iconography into outrageous performances. He rose from the Rio de Janeiro slums, and throughout his life remained defiantly black, homosexual and rebellious (he spent one-third of his 76 years in prison).

But in this story of an outcast who reinvents himself without compromising his impoverished roots, Aïnouz presents only the distant past, vaguely formative years that occur a decade before Madame Satã ever emerges.

The film introduces us to João sometime in the early 1930s, when he is simply a street criminal. He is under arrest -- the camera rests solely on his expressionless beat-up face -- and an off-screen character reads a laundry list of João's sins. They range from the justifiable -- he is a thief and procurer -- to those that are less prosecutable but no less socially indicting, such as speaking "the vulgar language of the gutter."

The film then jumps back in time, and a languid João peers through the beaded curtains of a nightclub, lip-synching along with the performer, a middle-aged woman delivering a weary version of Josephine Baker's "Nuit d'Alger." João, in his solitary performance, imbues the act with dramatic emotion, puckering his full lips and clutching the beaded strands with imagined passion. João is the woman's dresser, a job he endures without pay, presumably for the close association with glamour, however seedy, it provides.

For João's world are the streets of Lapa, a Rio de Janeiro slum. Here he prowls the alleys and the smoky clubs with streetwise authority, a hair-trigger temper and excellent capoiera fighting skills. Likewise, he rules his adoptive family: prostitute Laurita (Marcélia Cartaxo), her baby daughter and Taboo (Flávio Bauraqui), an effeminate homosexual prostitute who seems to be indentured to João and does most of the housekeeping.

Lázaro Ramos, making his big-screen debut as João, moves with a feline grace that captures all the sensuous and sinewy moves of a dangerous cat. He is a compelling and charismatic actor, but Aïnouz's thin story, composed mostly of vignettes, doesn't give him much depth to plumb. It's easy to understand why João is angry, less so to know what causes him to dream of becoming Josephine Baker. His casual cruelty to his family is presented as a matter of course, and as the narrative unfolds, João's self-interest becomes distancing.

There is a temptation to read this film as gay-positive, yet a better script might have examined the contradictions in João's psyche: the brazenly macho defense of his sexuality when his peace comes from appropriating female idols, his tormenting of Taboo's "fairy" ways, his cruel baiting of his lovers. It's also not clear which of his relationships -- sexual or familial -- are purely opportunistic.

Madame Satã does well with period atmosphere, offering a snapshot of the sounds and sights of bohemian Lapa: Aïnouz's camera captures plenty of sweat, grime and cheap sequins amidst the crowded bars and shabby apartments, while the ever-present anger and ennui are punctuated by bursts of music and laughter. He has an unfortunate tendency to shoot in very tight close-ups that occasionally go out of focus, and he employs a high-contrast, low-light style that often renders scenes murky.

Late in the film, João convinces a bar owner to let him perform a musical number. He offers a bastardized version of the Scheherazade number that opens the film, twisting the narrative to incorporate Afro-Brazilian myth. Yet Aïnouz makes the curious decision to shoot this triumphant and pivotal moment in super-close-ups that deny us much of the total impact of the João's fervent, body-shaking, defiant performance. The club's audience, whose members know João, cheers with approval.

It's an apt analogy for Madame Satã, which takes an undoubtedly fascinating figure, largely unknown outside of Brazil, and offers us this small early close-up. Without any wider introduction to João Francisco dos Santos' later life as the infamous Madame Satã, the film fails to transmit much heat. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Harris


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