February 26, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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An intimate portrait of the past, Karim Ainouz’s film Madame Sata affords audiences a glimpse of 1930s Brazil, a real life Moulin Rouge complete with colorful inhabitants and a lively setting. The movie faithfully follows its title character through hardships and triumph while rarely spinning the story to favor its lead.

Joao Francisco dos Santos (Lazaro Ramos), transvestite, cabaret singer, and criminal, reigned supreme in the Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite numerous arrests and frequent jail time, Joao lived life with fierce passion and intensity. Kept company by male prostitute Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), teenage lover Renatinho (Felippe Marques), and female prostitute Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), Joao fashions a bizarre parody of the average family that still seems to fit him perfectly.

Despite such a flamboyant choice of protagonist, Ainouz’s film is surprisingly personal and lacks the ample breadth of Joao’s epic life. This is, perhaps, the only way to break through Joao’s ostentatious and intimidating exterior. Ainouz unabashedly violates his protagonist’s personal space, often using extreme close-ups of Joao’s face along with shaky angles chronicling action sequences to make it seem like the camera is literally invading his life.

A wide shot of Joao’s enraptured face monopolizes the opening of the film as he hides backstage to watch an aging cabaret singer perform, totally engrossed in her words. He secretly mimics her movements behind a set of curtains, an action meant to be seen by none, but Ainouz’s inclusion of this private sequence serves to solidify Joao’s character by revealing the person beneath his reputation.

Ramos plays Joao like a man possessed, spitting cutting insults with a vile conviction and winning street fights with a primitive strength. There are times when we want to hate Joao, watching as he verbally and physically abuses even those who care for him. At other times, he is redeemed through the gentle touches and affection he bestows on Laurita’s baby. Volatile and intense, Joao is a man who exists in extremes.

Ainouz never over-editorializes Joao’s life, and this honesty allows audiences to see the true dilemma behind the whirlwind that was Joao Francisco dos Santos. Joao fights and slashes his way through life with temerity and a lack of hesitation, always searching for an adversary and conflict. When none are found, he turns his animosity towards his friends. Joao’s ongoing struggle against this invisible enemy lends the film it’s feeling of futility.

It’s interesting that Ainouz, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, presents Joao as an extremely powerful and masculine figure apart from his stage persona. The contrast between Joao, the fierce street fighter who evaded six policemen, and Madame Sata, the charismatic cabaret singer with glittering eyes and a cooing voice, is a sharp one. By filling his life with numerous external struggles, Joao is merely bringing to surface his internal disparities concerning identity and belonging.

Madame Sata effectively conveys its time period through a visually accurate environment. The entire feature is bathed in bright hues of orange and red until you can almost feel the scorching heat of the Brazilian sun. Madame Sata is about another world; garish, loud, and apart from our own.

Although Ainouz’s film is often blunt and unforgiving, demonstrating the personal as well as societal barriers that Joao and his friends frequently had to deal with, it never exploits these situations. Like its title suggests, Madame Sata is a film about a person, a larger than life personality whose vibrancy and determination set him apart from his chaotic world.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang