Madame Satã is a film that recreates some of the events in the life of the famous, hot-tempered, cabaret star, homosexual João Francisco dos Santos aka Madame Sata.
The film directed by Karim Aïnouz is set in 1930s Rio de Janeiro in the bohemian neighborhood of Lapa, where João Francisco (Lázaro Ramos) has dreams of becoming a star on the stage. He pays his dues by working in a bar assisting a woman cabaret performer who treats him badly. Yet João doesn't mind because he is lost in the beauty of the music, the costumes and the whole scene, which he hopes one day to reign over.
Yet João is no weak-willed dreamer. He is a tall, black, gay man, a proud rogue, a sometime gangster, a convicted prisoner and adoptive father. And if anyone gets in his way he has no trouble beating them to a pulp, which he does enough times to land him in prison and put him on the police record.
Other than João we get to know the cast of characters who surround him in the sordid, yet lively world of Lapa - a cast of pimps, prostitutes, deviants, samba composers and bohemians.
Madame Satã, is stylistically a heady film. At once gritty and glossy it presents an unadorned and seedy world. In every scene you can almost taste the dirt and smell the stench of humid heavy summers. The goings on in the neighborhood carries the burden of fear and in each scene we wait for something unexpected, bad or crazy to happen. To give the film an extra kick the camera deftly swerves around in each scene as if shaking to the samba and the rhythms of the street.
The film has a real edge to it and is not for every taste. Director Karim Aïnouz seems to shy away from nothing and he is not above making the audience squirm, feel uncomfortable or at least feel challenged. For a first film it is very good and even though it sometimes feels a little too stylish and in your face there is never any doubt that whether you love or hate the main character he is larger than life.
The film concentrates almost exclusively on the early years before João became Madame Sata, which was his costume/drag persona that he based on Cecil B. de Mille's Madame Satan. The film doesn't have many stage performances by João.
Director Aïnouz has said that; 'Madame Satã remains an unexplored myth of Brazilian culture, a marvelous hybrid of Josephine Baker, Jean Genet and some Robin Hood of the tropics. With the film, I have tried to portray an explosive and complex character; a human being at once passionate, feverish, and driven by a domineering passion for life.'
He succeeds in doing this mainly because the performances are all very good – especially Lázaro Ramos who captures the true essence of a powerful man who could be both someone you would want on your side and someone you would never want to cross at the wrong time.
The DVD is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphic and looks great. The film shot by Walter Carvalho (who shot Central Station) looks great and Wellspring has done a fine transfer. The colors are dark and grainy yet are also sharp. You can always tell a good transfer from the quality of the blacks and the shadows, which this film has in spades. Only on some of the bright red colors is their a noticeable contrast and some compression artifact but it is minimal.
The audio is in Portuguese and presented in Dolby Digital Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The film plays loud quite often capturing music, street noise, yelling and loud talk. The overall sound design fit the visuals well.
There is a fine commentary track by director Karim Aïnouz. He explains a lot about the making of the movie and what he had in mind visually and stylistically. There is a very insightful short documentary title Seams made in 1993 that juxtaposes the Latino macho culture with personal stories about the elder women in Karim's family many of whom have a particular negative feeling about men. There is also a making-of featurette that last about 28 minutes and is very informative and includes a good many interviews. Last is a trailer.
Madame Satã is a well directed Brazilian art-house film with strong performances and a fairly good story. The film is more style and performance than anything else but for a first film it is quite good. There are a fair amount of extras.