Don’t mess with Madame
Joao Francisco dos Santos (1900-1976) is the subject of this lively, episodic, if not altogether successful biopic. For those who don’t follow the adventures of famous Brazilian drag queens who kill and sing, Joao — self-dubbed “Madame Satã” in tribute to Cecil B. DeMille’s campy 1930 movie Madame Satan — was one of those Renaissance Queens who could do it all — one minute in mascara and feathers warbling Piaf-like dirges, the next using Bruce Lee-like kicks to take down a local tough. Madame is in that long-treasured tradition of muscular street trannies whose resumes start with “doesn’t take shit.”
Born to slaves in the wasteland of Northern Brazil and sold by his semi-devoted mother at age 7, Joao high-tailed it to Rio’s red-light Lapa district. African-black, commandingly tall, fearless, charismatic, and dishy, Joao quickly takes up with a group of street types, assuming the roles of father, mother, husband, adviser, confidante, and avenger. This outlaw commune is comprised of quasi-wife and whore Laurita, whose little daughter Joao dotes on; dimwitted drag number Taboo, who becomes both crime partner and punching bag for Joao’s rages; and indecently handsome teenage boyfriend Renatinho, whom Joao alternately romances and assaults. Exotic window dressing is provided by the dark streets of Lapa — an ideal shooting location for a neo-noir — and the tacky theatrical milieu of a club where Joao works that’s teeming with prostitutes, johns, screaming divas, and such exciting activities as ripping off tricks and beating up anybody in their path.
As Rio’s bohemian slum, Lapa is the ideal backdrop for Joao’s heady life, captured in high-point vignettes from his early ’30s career rather than in a linear narrative that follows him to decrepitude. Time doesn’t touch this timeless queen. The vignettes display every aspect of an iconic personality — a brutal encounter with an exploitative boss at the club (ending in a knife-wielding Joao threatening to castrate him); Joao pimping Taboo to a supposed straight guy whom they gleefully rob; a display of high kicks and karate chops by Miss Madame that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s Hong Kong chop-socky; and musical interludes in which Joao, now the Madame, performs Josephine Bakerish “exotic” tableaux involving feathers and fans and leopards.
Joao’s big dream of becoming a cabaret diva requires a series of alter egos that explore the inner life of this wildly creative personality. She’s alternately “The Negress of the Bulacoche”; the ever-welcome “Saint Rita of the Coconut Tree”; “Jamacy, The Queen of the Forest”; “The Shark”; and, of course, “The Wild Pussycat.”
But success, even for such talented creatures, doesn’t always last, and “Saint Rita’s” temper takes over when a drunk starts harassing her, a lethal mistake on his part. The film opens and closes with stark shots of a pummeled Joao in a police station, with a rude voiceover declaiming her many crimes. (She spent 27 of her 76 years in the hoosegow.)
Madame Satã has several things going for it. The ambience has a strikingly rich look, with a kind of squalid glamour throughout thanks to the noirish lighting and cinematography. And Joao’s story is seductive indeed, both as personal biography and as a history of the ascendance of Afro-Brazilian slum society from disrepute into visibility as apotheosized by the elaborate costumery and timeless celebrations of Carnaval. Joao’s androgyny, contradicting conventional views of spineless faggotry, is robust to the point of violence. Madame’s as equally likely to attack poor Taboo or the local cop. She perfectly embodies the strength and durability of the “deviant” lower-class personality, equally adept as queen-artiste, tough-guy killer, and natural force.
Also worth noting are some sizzling encounters between Joao and the gorgeous Renatinho. The camera, happily, doesn’t flinch from these sweaty tongue-swaps and skin-rubs, letting the characters’ lust bleed all over the frame.
On the down side, Lazaro Ramos’ portrayal of Joao, admirably energetic in much of the film, is finally almost too vigorous, veering into caricature in its sturm und drang style. Literally a drama queen, the character makes hay of every event, and all that screaming and hitting and carry-on may wear down all but the hardiest viewer. To the film’s credit, it allows for multiple interpretations of the character. Joao’s heroic in his defense of his disreputable friends and, especially, of his over-the-top lifestyle. But his stridency and his abusiveness, particularly of the pathetic Miss Taboo, brings him perilously close to being just another cartoonish Evil Queen.