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.”
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.”
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.
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.