Madame Satã

dir. Ainouz

Opens Fri Aug 15

Cinema 21

Madame Satã is based on the true life of João Francisco dos Santos (aka Madame Satã), a flamboyant figure of 1930s Rio de Janeiro. As pimp, drag performer, street fighter, surrogate father, thief, and bully, his is a character rich with dramas and a wide scope of emotions, from the most tender to the most egregious.

Làzaro Ramos tackles the role with convincing intensity, as believably girlish as he is butch. Homosexual history buffs might protest the fact that the film focuses on a relatively short, earlier era in his life, before he went on to become a legendary drag performer. However, the film's span captures the grime of pre-fame vitality that's always the most inspiring part of a biography.

The film is set in Lapas, the chaotic, violent, Bohemian section of Rio. Living in a household of prostitution, drug use, and negligent childcare, the relationships within the household are affectionate and festive one moment, abusive and dysfunctional the next. This is magnified in the film's portrayal of Lapas as a whole: simultaneously glittery and ghettoized.

The candid sensuality of gay sex portrayed in this film is refreshing and complex. Sated with cinematic variations on the hetero mating tropes, it's still rare for most audiences to see such forwardness in filmic anal sex. And it's hot. The whole movie steams; each character is misted in a light sweat. You can almost see the odors of the set, a smell-o-vision of lower body scents and free perfume samples.

The documentary aspects of Madame are great, and the lead role is so fascinating that it's possible to ignore the weakness of the plot's drive. More of a portrait than a story, the film sometimes feels as though it slips into a routine of the same daily adventures: fussing over his roommate Laurita's baby, while berating and abusing Laurita and Taboo (his other roommate, a shrieky, effeminate prostitute).

Final scenes include two drag productions, alluding to Francisco's future, thick with crime and costumes. The vibrancy and festivity of these performances lend brightness to an otherwise sad, gorgeous film.