When it opened in 2002, the Brazilian film,“Madame Satã”, was widely regarded as one of the most auspicious debuts ever for a native-born filmmaker — Karim Ainouz, in this case. It won no less than 21 awards from a variety of film festivals, and earned an additional 14 nominations. Having just seen and admired his follow-up film, “O Céu de Suely”, from 2006, and very intrigued by the subject matter, I had high hopes for what would be a possibly transcendental experience.
I regret to report that those hopes were not met — far from it. “Madame Satã” struck this critic as a well-acted, but cold, quasi-pornographic, dramatically uninvolving and not particularly insightful with regards to Brazilian history or culture, which to a large extent are the real themes of this biographical film.
Yet why has this movie been so widely overrated by film festival jurors and movie reviewers? I suspect that in large part, its admirers have confused an audacious subject with an audacious experience, and pornography with passion.
However the subject itself is genuinely fascinating, and I might add, worthy of a much better film. João Francisco dos Santos, was an Afro-Brazilian born into poverty in 1900 as the son of ex-slaves and in the decades that followed, was a gangster, pimp, convicted murderer, male prostitute, father to seven children by multiple women and a cutting-edge and courageous cross-dressing cabaret performer who emulated his idol, Josephine Baker.
Of the 76 years he lived, 27 of them were spent in prison, serving time for a variety of criminal offenses, though it is likely that Brazil’s bourgeois-biased and racist courts were inclined to add time to his sentences for his being both black and gay.
That he lived as long as he did and ultimately triumphed over racism, poverty and puritanism — not to mention his own rage-driven delinquent and self-destructive tendencies — is a remarkable story indeed. Yet strangely enough, this triumph is not the theme of the film, and indeed, Ainouz concludes his telling of Santos’ life story just at the point it is going to at its most interesting.
Rather, Ainouz focuses only a very limited period in Santos’ history, about his gradual evolution from life as an exploited worker in a white-owned tavern (with an additional career as a pimp to his Afro-Brazilian male lover, who shares a home with Santos’ wife and child), so he can live viscerally through the chanteuse he serves, to finally, after a prison sentence, becoming a popular female impersonator.
Santos, both in real-life and in the film, was a genuine paradox; a drag performer with an athletic physique and a mastery of capoeira who could hold his own in Brazil’s fiercest favelas. The film highlights this paradox, as well as the rage Santos experienced as an innate affront to racism and sexual hypocrisy of Brazilian culture.
And unfortunately, the theme of Santos’ rage is pretty much all there is to film, whose real raison d’etre, to me at least, seems to be baiting what Anouz might perceive as a bourgeois audience. One fairly graphic sex scene, for example, between Santos and his white male lover, with much nudity and tongue-on-tongue kissing in close-up, for example, seems designed less to convey sensuality than cynicism, as if Ainouz were hoping he could unsettle every heterosexual Caucasian male watching “Madame Satã”. Similarly, we Santos assaulting, and even killing, a variety of white racist and homophobic characters, both male and female.
Yet the focus on malevolence in Santos’ life comes at the expense of the magic; his passionate exuberance as a performer, which ultimately served as his redemption, is only hinted at. And it is not only Santos’ exuberance, but that of Brazil itself, highlighted in classics from this country such as “Black Orpheus” and “Bye, Bye Brazil”, which gets the short shrift in “Madame Satã”. At least this is the opinion of this one contrarian critic. The curious filmgoer in Santiago can go to the Plaza Cultural la Moneda and decide for him or herself.
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