Madame Satã
review by Nicholas Schager, 11 July 2003

At the center of Karim Ainouz’s tantalizing but shallow biography Madame Satã stands João Francisco dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos), a pimp, prostitute, thief, killer, homosexual, cross-dresser, and cabaret performer all rolled into one volatile package – even for someone living in Rio de Janeiro’s seedy Lapa district, where whores and artists can be found on virtually every trash-strewn street corner, his was quite a reputation. Mr. Ainouz’s film jumps full throttle into João Francisco’s life, beginning with his early days doing make-up for a cabaret singer and then hurtling through the ensuing decade, in which the charismatic Brazilian swindled unwitting lovers, avoided the law, and attempted to create a name for himself as a stage performer while living with his prostitute “wife” Laurita (Marcélia Cartaxo), her baby daughter, and his girlish homosexual partner-in-crime Taboo (Flávio Bauraqui). A man of innumerable contradictions – one minute a nurturing father figure, the next a raging maniac – João Francisco eventually wound up garnering the acclaim he had so desperately craved, finding fame with his most outrageous cabaret character of them all: Madame Satã.

Who was Madame Satã, the persona that turned João Francisco into a local legend? Ainouz’s film is completely uninterested in such details – the Satã character appears only during the film’s final credits, after we’ve learned about the tumultuous, unconventional life that led to his/her creation. Shot through what looks like a layer of chic grime, the film has an enticingly decrepit visual scheme that complements its protagonist’s violent underworld flamboyance. Amidst the decaying apartments and squalid nightclubs is João Francisco, an imposing six-foot tiger of a man, glistening black skin and eyes lit by fire and fury. He was many people at once, alternating between petty crook, barroom brawler (using a high-kicking fighting style known as “capoeira”), and devoted paternal figure – at one point, he and Laurita, dressed in their Sunday best, take her daughter for a peaceful stroll along the water in a wishful attempt at domestic normalcy – with the explosiveness of a man not fully in control of his life.

As the film portrays him, João Francisco’s schizophrenic personality was caused by a collision between his dreams – of stardom, of quiet family life – and his reality as a cross-dressing homosexual spurned by Brazilian society, and newcomer Lázaro Ramos brings him to life with an intimidating ferociousness. Yet writer/director Ainouz paints a disappointingly one-dimensional portrait of this outlandish madman, choosing to focus on his love affairs and crimes, as well as the lively locale he called home, without ever convincing us that we should respect or empathize with such a self-destructive psychotic. There’s little doubt that João Francisco’s grandiosity eventually made him some sort of icon, but Madame Satã is primarily concerned with his numerous homosexual affairs and bloody scuffles, both of which seem fueled by a mysterious inner rage he couldn’t subdue. The camera lingers longingly on Ramos’ sweaty torso and sculpted jaw during these fierce episodes, as if this close proximity will reveal the essence of this untamed firebrand. What’s ultimately exposed, however, is the film’s inability to move past its frank depiction of homosexual intimacy toward an insightful revelation about its subject.

One gets the impression that Ainouz sees João Francisco – who endured prison stints both small (a few months) and large (ten years) – as a passionate counterculture artist determined to destroy established prejudices and long-held notions of propriety. The problem with such a viewpoint is that the film never convinces us that João Francisco was anything more than an incendiary troublemaker with a gift for over-the-top song-and-dance routines – the unimpressive performance he idolizes, and his subsequent routines portraying a panoply of wicked characters, all revolve around the familiar tale of The Arabian Nights. Many may find João Francisco a spiritual (if not direct) ancestor of cross-dressing stars such as Divine and RuPaul. But the thinly-sketched man at the center of Madame Satã is best characterized as an enigmatic and only intermittently interesting lunatic with an extravagant penchant for sex and sequins.

Written and
Directed by:

Karim Ainouz

Lázaro Ramos
Marcelia Cartaxo
Flavio Bauraqui
Felipe Marques
Emiliano Queiroz
Renata Sorrah
Giovana Barbosa
Ricardo Blat
Guilherme Piva
Marcelo Valle
Floriano Peixoto
Gero Camilo
Orã Figueiredo

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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