By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Madame Satã opens with a close-up on the face of its hero/ine, Joao Francisco dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos) — beaten and bruised, with blood trickling from one corner of his mouth. The permed hair, already reverting back to kink, is brushed messily back from his face, and one eye is in shadow. As an exploding flashbulb cues the viewer that this is a mug shot in progress, an offstage policeman starts reading the list of offenses. Among them: “He is a passive pederast who shaves his eyebrows and imitates women. He hates society because it hates him. He has no education. He has no religion.” Dos Santos’ social identity is defined wholly by his criminality. But his crimes aren’t simply the whoring, stealing and violent beatings that he hands out (he’s a fervent practitioner of the Brazilian martial art capoeira); they’re also and primarily his race, sexuality and class. Writer-director Karim Ainouz makes this point both explicitly and with feather-light subtlety: Joao is a cauldron of rage that has everything to do with his being a poor, black faggot. But if he ever had any shame around those markers, it’s been burned away by the time the audience meets him. Those identity strikes account for his station in life, but they’re also the very qualities that make him a Brazilian folk hero.
The real-life dos Santos, according to press notes, was born to slaves in northern Brazil (slavery was officially, though not really, abolished in Brazil in 1888), then sold by his mother when he was 7. Later in life, dark-skinned, tall and aggressive, he made a name for himself in the underworld of Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, where artists and bohemians rubbed shoulders with assorted lowlifes. Hooking and stealing while dreaming of being a cabaret star, dos Santos had a foot in each camp. Ainouz does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of Lapa in the 1930s, exaggerating and highlighting details to produce a stylized backdrop that is simultaneously evocative of the grimy, claustrophobic ghetto and — paradoxically — quite beautiful. Cinematographer Walter Carvalho and production designer Marcos Pedroso, through artful lighting and the use of assorted tones of brown, gray and black, create the look of vintage photographs sprung to life.
What Ainouz doesn’t do, and he’s brave for having made the choice, is spoon-feed psychological claptrap to the viewer in order to garner sympathy for what is a tough and often unlikable central character. (The film makes no reference at all to dos Santos’ parents or bleak childhood.) From the tyranny with which he runs the household he shares with the prostitute Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), her toddler daughter, and Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), a resolutely airheaded young queen (think Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy from Gone With the Wind turning tricks and boozing), to the mood swings that have him flip from purring seductress to knife-wielding psychopath at the drop of a hat, the film never pulls punches or offers apologies for dos Santos’ behavior. Ainouz trusts the audience to understand the impact and ramifications of circumstance on this character. At the same time, he gives us moments of humor and tenderness (dos Santos dotes on Laurita’s child and is swept off his feet by a handsome drifter) that illustrate the complexity — and charm — of his film’s center.
The marketing hook for Madame Satã is that dos Santos was “part Jean Genet, part Josephine Baker,” and it’s true that what makes his true-life story so fascinating is the journey from oft-arrested street thug to nationally celebrated icon and chanteuse. (“I am a son of [Yoruba gods] Iansa and Ogun,” he says at one point. “Of La Baker, I am a disciple.”) However, the real rewards of this tough-minded yet hugely enjoyable throwback to earlier queer and art-house cinema work are its psychologically complex characterizations and its gorgeous craftsmanship. (Ainouz once interned for Todd Haynes, and it shows.) At a time when both gay and straight folk mistake a gaggle of queens clucking and fussing over hetero boys — exhorting them to shop, consume and conform — for radical social interaction, it’s a courageous act to drop a film in which propriety and the status quo are actually challenged, in which such outcasts among outcasts are given center stage.
And again, it’s Lázaro Ramos’ impersonation of dos Santos that all but incinerates the screen. Intense to the point of possession, he gives a performance that is both fearless and flawless, nuanced and knowing. Here is a character you haven’t seen on the screen before, at least not outside a few niche documentaries. This ain’t the usual “spook who sat by the door” (no purpose save decorative), cheap joke or rejuvenated mammy role that black queer characters are usually relegated to. Ramos combines the street swagger of a hardcore homo thug with the balletic grace of a self-created queen, resulting in a subversive take on black cool and black queerness. It’s the black fag as character, not caricature.
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