In Madame Satã, Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz invites the
audience to be a fly on the wall of
the underbelly of the
bohemian Lapa district of Rio in the 1930s, and into the very
masculine world of
the movie’s main character. The sex in
resembles x-rated versions of Wild
Madame Satã is a movie with the wrong name. The title comes from the stage name of Brazil’s most famous drag
queen of the Rio de Janeiro Carnaval. But viewers expecting to see a Brazilian version of
To Wong Foo or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
will be surprised, maybe even a little shocked. Those movies about drag queens were fairly clean, tame and
feminine. Madame Satã couldn’t be any more different.
Perhaps "Before Madame Satã" would be a more appropriate title, since the film is about the story of João Francisco
dos Santos before he became the famous carnival dancer of the 1940s, named after Cecil B. De Mille’s film
Director/writer Karim Aïnouz invites the audience to be a fly on the wall of the underbelly of the bohemian Lapa
district of Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, and into the dirty, raw and very masculine world of the movie’s main character and
impromptu family. João Franciscoportrayed masterfully by cinema newcomer Lázaro Ramosis a muscular, quick-tempered,
testosterone-pumped and overwhelmingly male "queen".
The film begins with the open lips and wide eyes of João Francisco from behind what seems to be a crown of beads.
He is mouthing the words as if they were his own, rather than being sung by a woman burlesque stage artist to a drunk and
rowdy audience. In those moments João Francisco is, in his own mind, the star.
But the scene quickly turns. Vitória dos Anaw6kx (Renata Sorrah) comes off stage, tosses João Francisco her shawl at
him and demands her next costume. As her stage dresser he quietly submits to her verbal abuse while she scoffs at his praise
of her routineat least this time.
The rest of João’s life is anything but submissive. He lives in a flat with a makeshift "family" of fellow underworld
bohemians. Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), João’s best friend, is a prostitute with a brash laugh and less-than-motherly instincts towards
her infant daughter. The real "mother" of the family is Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), a transvestite with a flair for cooking,
sewing and general housekeeping. The one-year-old Firmina (Giovanna Barbosa) is often seen in either the motherly arms of
Taboo as nanny or João Francisco as adoptive father. João rules the house, Taboo tends to it, and Laurita fits in somewhere in between.
João Francisco has no need for anything feminine. Laurita may be his best friend, but he’s attracted to men, not
women. Nor does he like the tenderness of a homosexual like Taboo. João Francisco is a man’s man, and wants the same. One
night in the Blue Danube, the local bar, he sets his sights on Renatinho (Felippe Marques), makes a pass at him in the
bathroom, and eventually seduces him in the paint-stripped bedroom of his home.
The sex in Madame Satã resembles x-rated versions of
Wild Kingdom more than tame love scenes. João Francisco
makes love like he lives lifewith anger, passion, fire and a primordial hunger that is more reminiscent of big-game cats than
humans. He is a sleek black puma, and the rest of the world is his prey.
One lover, Renatinho, is welcomed into the lair. Anothera paying John who speaks in code when he asks for "a
sister who looks like you, has thighs like you" and sticks his tongue down João’s throatbecomes a target for João Francisco
and Taboo’s mischief. Taboo breaks into the room screeching that the police are on a house-by-house search for a murderer.
The client flees, and they laugh after the middle-class man runs out with his shirt in his hands and pants undone and
missing his cash-filled wallet that he’ll never report stolen.
It’s apparent that these threeJoão, Taboo and Lauritacould have continued to live quite contently for years in
Lapa, making money through prostitution, thievery and other odd jobs. But João has an inhuman temper. "You’re like a wild
animal, banging its head against a wall," Laurita cries in desperation after witnessing João’s rage.
One evening at the cabaret João is caught trying on one of the singer’s costumes, and she nags and belittles him like
a hellish grandmother to a small child. He finally has had enough. He fights back verbally against her, throws a few props
around the dressing room, then goes to the bartender and quits. But he won’t leave until he’s paid what he’s owedtwo months
of wages. João ends up leaving with his money after using his knife and capoeira-style street-fighting skills on the goons at
the bar. But the matter doesn’t end there. João is eventually arrested for stealing from the cabaret owner and serves some
time in jail.
After getting out he’s inspired to do his own show, and convinces bar-owner Amador (Emiliano Queiroz) to perform
at the Blue Danube. The show is a smashing success and Amador and João discuss continuing the performances that will
eventually make him famous, until João’s anger gets the better of him once again.
First-time feature director Ainouz apparently took years to write the script and assemble the cast and crew, and
the fermentation of the project is apparent. The cinematography by Walter Carvalho, with its hand-held camera techniques
and over-exposed footage, brilliantly brings the grit of underworld Rio to life and enhances the superb acting.
Madame Satã takes place in foreign territory lost today even to Brazilians, but feels utterly honest and real. There
aren’t many Brazilian films that make the translation to the U.S. market, but those that do
(Pixote, Central Station) are often hard looks at the difficult life of the common people. Madame Satã joins them.
Madame Satã plays at the Film Forum (209 West Houston St.), in New York, until July 22. Show times are 1:00,
3:15, 5:40, 7:45 and 10:00 pm.
Mary Beth Barber, the author, lives in New York and welcomes comments at
This article originally appeared at