“I choose to be a queen but that doesn’t make me less of a man,” says Joao Francisco dos Santos, the feisty protagonist of “Madame Sata.” First feature director Karim Ainouz’s vivid 1930s-set biopic recreates a key period in the life of the legendary gay streetfighter, criminal and killer, an uneducated black Brazilian descended from slaves who doubled as a cabaret singer and drag artiste styled after Josephine Baker. While it’s a little shapeless and dramatically overwrought, the film remains entertaining thanks to its fascinating subject, sharp visuals and fiercely proud central performance. Those factors together with a modicum of steamy sex should prove enticing to gay niche distribs.
An imposing figure, six-feet tall, with a lean, muscular body, an aggressive strut and attitude to burn at a time long before gym culture and politicized visibility transformed the gay stereotype, the subject seems ripe for consecration as a gay outlaw folk hero, something Ainouz’s film fails to do. It does, however, portray dos Santos as a man unashamed of his sexuality, who wears it with pride and refuses to take abuse or derision from anyone.
Opening with a battered Joao (Lazaro Ramos) staring direct to camera as a damning courtroom character assessment is read, the action unfolds in the seedy Lapa quarter of Rio, revolving around the boarding house where Joao lives with his de facto family and the Blue Danube club where they hang out. That family consists of hooker Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), flamboyant screamer Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), given to cross-dressing and turning a few tricks himself, and Laurita’s infant daughter. Also on the scene is Joao’s sometime lover Renatinho (Felippe Marques), who tries to rob him after sex and is thrown out of the house but continues to figure in his life.
More attention is lavished on reconjuring the decadent nocturnal world crawling with pimps, pushers, whores and other shady types than on structuring the messy narrative. But a clear impression is conveyed of the time and place, as well as a playful, dignified depiction of a complex man capable of great love and tenderness but also of explosive outbursts and cruelty.
Joao gets his taste for drag and his passion for elaborate fairy tales about regal princesses and fearsome warrior women from a cabaret act in a nightclub where he works. After waiting months to be paid, he takes what’s owed him at knifepoint, leading to his first arrest and imprisonment. Upon his release, Joao declares he’s done with the hustling and robbery that fueled his pre-prison years and is set on becoming a star. This he achieves in a glitzy tribute to Laurita at the Blue Danube, a success that leads to a repeat performance. But a bar patron hurling anti-gay and anti-black slurs prompts Joao to defend his honor.
While dos Santos died in 1976 of cancer, the years following his release in 1942 from a 10-year prison stint for murder are accounted for only with a postscript stating that he won the first of three Queen of Carnival titles in a costume inspired by Cecil B. DeMille’s “Madame Satan.” Aside from accompanying press notes, there’s nothing about his subsequent adoption of seven children or his late-in-life underground hero status, nor is there any detail on his tough start in Northeast Brazil or early years in the Rio brothels. A more ambitious script might have communicated a fuller sense of the man and supplied the mythic dimension that’s missing here.
Like his work on Walter Salles’ “Behind the Sun,” accomplished lenser Walter Carvalho brings a visual sumptuousness that seems almost at odds with the poverty of the settings. But the choice to shoot often close in on the characters in a heated, claustrophobic style, in lustrous, dark tones and desaturated exteriors effectively underlines the shadowy allure of the characters’ illicit nighttime world.
Ainouz’s screenplay fails to provide much access to the inner workings of Joao’s mind. But his mix of deep-rooted anger, firm sense of self-identity as well as his hedonism and taste for glamour come through in Ramos’ volatile, often enjoyably arch performance, as committed when he’s kicking ass as when he’s sashaying in sequins. Able support comes from Cartaxo, who makes Laurita a sympathetic floozy, and from Bauraqui, whooping it up without going overboard as an unapologetic super-nelly.