Madame Satã

(Karim Ainouz, Brazil, 2002)


This film is a portrait of a flamboyant cabaret entertainer in the Brazilian district of Lapa in the 1930s. João Francisco dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos in a powerhouse performance) is gay, tough, streetwise, ever-suspicious, and a connoisseur of Josephine Baker and decadent Hollywood movies (his stage name derives from Cecil B. De Mille's Madam Satan [1930]).

In its rough and ready mixture of underground sexuality, political oppression and a vibrant musical milieu, the film at moments recalls Julian Schnabel's rather more controlled Before Night Falls (2000). As in that film, raucous scenes of night-life and uninhibited eroticism give way to sadder truths about the way of the world.

First-time feature director Karim Ainouz, working under the guidance of producer Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), chooses to give Madame Satã a you-are-there immediacy. This means constant close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork and frequent blurry images. The effect is initially vivid but eventually tiresome, depriving us of any wider social or historical context.

Although this film claims to be 'inspired by the legends and myths' surrounding Madame Satã rather than a literal biography, it has the same problem as many biopics in finding a decent narrative shape.

Rather arbitrarily, Ainouz chooses a brush with the law as a framing device, but since such incidents were (as the film tells us) common in João's life, the structure carries little dramatic weight. And the film, essentially as result of this shapelessness, has a very weak ending.

But what lingers in the memory is Ainouz's touching vision of the unconventional family of misfits gathered around João.

© Adrian Martin April 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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