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Madame Satã (NR)
Official Site
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Producers: Isabel Diegues, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Donald K. Ranvaud, Marc Beauchamps
Written by: Karim Ainouz
Cast: Lázaro Ramos, Marcelia Cartaxo, Flavio Bauraqui, Felipe Marques, Emiliano Queiroz, Renata Sorrah, Giovana Barbosa, Ricardo Blat

Rating: out of 5

Karim Aïnouz ’s Madame Satã is a lush, visual eye-feast of exotic, smoke-filled bars and cobble-stoned alleyways that plummet and heave through the Lapa district of Rio. The favala never looked so good. This ain’t no City Of God, with its brutally realistic depictions of Brazilian slums awash with unspeakable violence. And while the characters in that film were fictional but believably true, in Madame Satã the streets are inhabited by João Francisco and his sad rundown friends, actual people and events from 1930s Rio de Janeiro.

Aïnouz’s film concerns the infamous João Francisco; he longs to be the femme fatale star of his own one-woman cabaret, but instead he settles as an assistant to a verbally abusive chanteuse. Sick of her constant put-downs, João goes nuts one night and trashes her dressing room. But with well rounded equality he also heaps abuse on his housemates: Taboo, an effeminate partner in occasional homosexual scams, and Laurita, a prostitute whose better days have long since passed. In a nutshell it’s the manic relationship between all three that makes Madame Satã such a compelling film. João is a charming friend and provider one moment, but he quickly changes to a mean-spirited lout the next. Why do Taboo and Laurita put up with the mood swings? Because ultimately all they have is each other. On top of it all, theirs is an existence of poetic beauty and sorrow. Even at night their clothes stick to their sweaty bodies in the heavy tropical air, but Laurita, João, and Taboo seem indifferent to corporeal discomforts. They are tormented instead by personal demons that emanate from within.

João’s future is almost preordained when he beats up a greasy customer who attempts unsuccessfully to forcibly procure the services of Laurita. During the scuffle, a gun is wrestled away from João’s witless victim, but João refuses to use it. “Real men use their fists” he shouts defiantly. But we know he doesn’t want to be a real man, and this will eventually lead to his undoing.

Madame Satã has one flaw and that is its somewhat deceptive title. If you’re looking for a drag queen tale with complex issues of dual sexuality, you won’t entirely find it here. Part of the promotional buzz for this picture revolves around the notoriety and popularity of Madame Satã, who is well known in Brazil but less so here. After being released from prison for murder, João goes on to win the 1942 Best Costume Contest at Carnival, donning an outfit of red and orange sequins. Sata or “Satan” or “devil” is the imagery the costume is supposed to conjure up, and this is clearly intended to describe the complex personality of João as well. But this fact is only mentioned at the end of the film as a textual footnote; we never see Madame Satã/João in said outfit at all. Madame Satã should really be titled Madame Satã Part I, The Prequel, or The Making Of A Drag Queen. Despite its rushed conclusion, João’s early life story is still a part worth watching.

—Nancy Semin


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