3 min

Tenderness & explosive fury

When love comes with rage

Credit: Xtra files

For Karim Aïnouz, Madame Satã was just the name of a punk nightclub in São Paulo, Brazil that he frequented in the early 1980s. He had a vague idea that the name of the club referred to a mythical figure from Rio de Janeiro, someone who most people had heard of but didn’t really know much about. It wasn’t until a friend gave him a biography of this underground legend that Madame Satã became a topic of his fascination and ultimately the subject of his first feature film.

Twenty years after he moshed in that São Paulo nightclub, Aïnouz brings us a story inspired by the real life character João Francisco dos Santos who became legendary during the mid-20th century for his costumes and performances as Madame Satã in Rio’s Carnival. The film is set in steamy 1930s Rio and introduces us to the sordid yet lively neighbourhood of Lapa where dos Santos resides as a fiercely proud drag performer, criminal and hustler, a man who is part lover and part fighter.

As played by Lázaro Ramos, dos Santos is a compelling and unforgettable character whose intensity burns in every scene. Many viewers will be both fascinated and repulsed by Ramos’ electrifying performance of this poor, black, gay man who is almost annoyingly complex (viewers at this year’s Inside Out festival voted Madame Satã the audience favourite).

It is rare to encounter a screen figure who displays such a volatile mix of tenderness and explosive fury. Dos Santos serves as a role model for no one, responding to the slightest provocation with anger and abuse, treating those who care for him with hostility. Yet he moves through his world with a passion and a swagger and a kind of primal magnetism that draws people to him, including writer and director Aïnouz.

“I was taken by the way that this man led his life,” says Aïnouz on the phone from Paris. “He loved life and lived his without any apologies. His in-your-face attitude was attractive to me and I felt that he was someone whose story deserved to be told.”

Born in 1900, one of 17 children of an ex-slave, dos Santos lived until 1976 and the movie focusses on the crucial period immediately before the creation of Madame Satã, the myth. When we first meet dos Santos, he is working at a cabaret, dressing the star and lipsynching along to her onstage performances from behind the strands of a beaded curtain. He mouths the words of his idol, Josephine Baker, as he dreams of becoming a diva himself. He lives in a boarding house and reigns as the patriarch of an eclectic family that includes his sex worker “wife” Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), her baby daughter and a limp-wristed servant named Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui) whom he pimps out for profit.

Sex, drugs and violence are plentiful both at home and at The Blue Danube, a dive bar where dos Santos hangs out, hustling and drinking with his friends. He is a feared street fighter and his short temper provides ample opportunity to display his graceful skills in capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. Aïnouz follows dos Santos as he embarks on a passionate, violent affair with a white street tough named Renatinho (played by Felipe Marques) – of course, dos Santos is a top – and continues to struggle with the anger that consumes him.

“This character was profoundly enraged by the way he was seen in the world,” says Aïnouz. “And love always comes with rage.”

After a violent dispute with his boss and the star at the cabaret, dos Santos is imprisoned for six months. On his release, he begins working at The Blue Danube which becomes the venue for his first triumphant stage show. His follow-up performance is another great success but also provokes a confrontation which results in a second incarceration. After serving a 10-year sentence, dos Santos returns to Lapa in 1942 and an onscreen epilogue informs us that he ascended to stardom as Madame Satã .

Given the title of the film, Madame Satã would have been more satisfying if we were able to witness this transformation. Aïnouz shys away from much of the past and the future of the character and dos Santos remains somewhat of a mystery at the end of the film. “I was not interested in telling how the myth was born, or to explain it. I wanted to portray the character prior to the creation of the myth… I wanted to share his intimacy.”

The result is a movie of atmosphere and performance which transports the viewer to the seedy streets of Rio in the early 20th century. Working entirely on location, Aïnouz creates a world of sweat and danger where pimps and prostitutes people the night and you can smell the smoke emanating from the tips of their cigarettes.

“How do you represent memory?” asks Aïnouz. “I wasn’t interested in looking at the past with any kind of nostalgic view. I wanted to portray how people would have led their daily lives and not present some idealized, sanitized version of the past.”

Madame Satã holds true to this vision in presenting the gritty tale of João Francisco dos Santos, who overcomes poverty, racism and homophobia with the sheer will and force of his personality. Like any other black gay man, he has to fight to carve out his place in the world. Aïnouz does an amazing job of capturing the anguish and the glory of this battle.

* Madame Satã, in Portuguese with English subtitles, opens Fri, Nov 7 at the Carlton (20 Carlton St); call (416) 598-2309.