Dir: Karim Ainouz. Brazil/France. 2002. 103mins.
There's a wonderful film to be made about Joao Francisco Dos Santos, otherwise known as Madame Sata, a rugged homosexual, six-foot-tall and weighing 170 pounds, who lived as a street fighter, singer, transvestite and devoted father to seven adopted children in the bohemian quarter of Rio from 1900 to 1976. Madame Sata is not that movie. The first feature by Karim Ainouz, who co-wrote Walter Salles's Behind The Sun, it neither gets under the skin of its flamboyant protagonist nor creates a compelling portrait of the colourful demi-monde where he lived. Gay audiences attracted by the subject are the film's most probable audience, but even here the pickings are likely to be slim.
Set in the early 1930s, the film first finds Dos Santos (Lazaro Ramos) as a waiter-cook moonlighting as a petty criminal. He is also installed in a turbulent menage-a-trois with Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), an effete male prostitute and Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), to whose small baby he acts as a surrogate father-protector. Yet Dos Santos obscurely longs for a better, more elegant life. He's fascinated by the gorgeous costumes and fairytale escapism of the chanteuse at the bar where he works. Constantly getting into brawls, he favours the balletic Brazilian martial art of capoeira, scorning opponents who rely on the gun.
Budgetary constraints are all too obvious in the director's unerring concentration on narrowly framed, underlit interior scenes at the expense of the fabulous spectacle promised by the setting. Despite Ramos's charismatic presence, Dos Santos himself also comes across for much of the time as aggressive and unengaging, as he lurches through an endless series of arguments and fights. There's no attempt to delve very far into his psyche or to convey any sense of his impending mythical status.
Frustratingly, the film ends just at the point when it's about to get interesting, as he finally gets his long awaited break in showbusiness and is allowed to stage his drag act in a bar for the first time to the public's delight. As Dos Santos transforms himself into Madame Sata (taking his name from a film by Cecil B De Mille), this hard-bitten man is lit up by happiness and euphoria and one realises that here a man who has at last found his destiny.
Prod co: Videofilmes
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch
Prods: Marc Beauchamps, Donald Kranvaud, Vincent Maraval, Juliette Renaud
Cinematography: Walter Carvahlo
Prod des: Marcos Pedroso
Ed: Isabela Monteiro De Castro
Music: Sacha Amback, Marcos Suzano
Main cast: Lazaro Ramos, Marcelia Cartaxo, Flavio Bauraqui, Fellipe Marques