“Madame Satã“ (2002) is about a homosexual cross-dresser struggling to survive in 1930s Rio. But that’s like saying Million Dollar Baby is about a girl struggling to be a boxer – the literal translation is only a vessel to the emotion and human condition carried within.
João Francisco dos Santos, born at the turn of the 20th century, is a bandit, transvestite, street fighter, brothel cook, convict and father to seven adopted children. As the real life Madame Satã, he was a notorious gay performer who pushed social boundaries in a volatile time.
The film is not a documentary, minus some short footage of the real Madame Satã at the end. It takes place in Rio de Janeiro’s bohemian Lapa district in 1932 and paints a world of seedy trysts, hard livings, and lively intentions. It’s overrun with ladies and gentlemen of the night. Indeed, the place seems to take on a veil of sweaty lustre at night, with the glistening stone pavement and dim streetlights that prove witness to the shadows of desire that pass through its streets. Everything seems to hum with a quiet desperation. People need money to live. People give money in order to live. In between everything was negotiable.
Lázaro Ramos plays the man that takes us into this world. His world. He lives with Laurita(Marcelia Cartaxo), a cheerful and kind woman that he took in along with her baby girl, and Tabu (Flavio Bauraqui), a thin and giggly man, a dreamer and a child at heart. Together these three adults, and the baby, forms a most unlikely family in a cramped house in the Lapa district. They dance to old records in the backyard, where a corner of the enclosing wall is broken to pieces. They sit out on the front steps, watching candyman go by jingling and ambling along. They go to the beach, frolicking in the water and lazing on the beach. At night, they dress up and walk down the street to the bars, and they make their living the best way they know how. Throughout all this they care for each other deeply, and they look out for each other in the best way they know how, be it beating up a drunken john that tries to force himself on Laurita, or scamming a potential client into leaving his wallet behind, or lavishing compliments of Santos’ great hair when nothing else can be mended.
Santos is a simple man. He wants what we all want – a lover to trust, friends to have, and a place to call home at the end of the day. Above all he wants to make a living doing what he loves, to perform on a stage, in front of an audience. He dreams of drowning in a sea of applause. He has an instinctual talent to create fantasies of glitter and color. For most of his life he was denied an opportunity to pursue this, and could only satisfy his craving for the spotlight and song by assisting the starlet in the dressing room, peeking from behind the curtains. When he finally transforms into Madame Satã, the image is stunning. Layers of strands of beads decorate his chest, each glistening like ivory stones carved out of mountains. A vivid sarong wraps around his taut waist, and every inch of his skin glistens in a mist of glitter. He moves around the room in a blur of passion, hypnotically narrating a tale of mystical land and beings. The crowd is entranced and enthralled. They absorb the rhythm he provides with hunger and want more.
The film glows in sporadic moments. Scenes of Santos on stage are breathtaking. The cinematography is dizzying and enthralling in those sequences, with close-ups that take you inside the performance. Ramos is brave in the role, embracing both the violent and intimate moments without hesitation. In between these moments, though, the film leaves more to be desired. The editing could be sharper. The story could be more focused. We never really find out what winds Santos’ dream of Madame Satã. Laurita and Tabu are nice, but rather flat in their characters. There must be more to these people. The film could’ve been more deliberate in deciding what to show us.
Nonetheless, Rio in 1932, what a place to walk through.