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Madame Sata casts his spell

Brazilian filmmaker Karim Ainouz is captivated by the man who went from pimp and jailbird to legendary cabaret performer.

August 17, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Karim Ainouz's "Madame Sata," which opens Friday at the Nuart, is a dynamic portrait of Joao Francisco dos Santos (1900-76), a legendary figure in Rio de Janeiro's Bohemian neighborhood of Lapa. The son of ex-slaves, Dos Santos was a street kid at 13, coming of age in a series of brothels. Ruggedly handsome, he was a master of the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, a pimp and a thief but also tender and paternal.

A proud gay black man who discovered in himself a passion for cabaret entertaining, Santos performed in outrageous makeup, jewelry and costumes. He was not a drag queen, a female impersonator, but a pioneer gender-bender in performance, accenting a muscular physique with extravagant feminine finery and creating an array of exotic personae. (Think Dennis Rodman.) Josephine Baker was his idol, and he took his stage name from a film he cherished, Cecil B. De Mille's 1930 "Madame Satan." He lived a life like that of Jean Genet, spending a total of 27 years in jail for assorted crimes, completing his last sentence in 1965, and his dictated memoirs made him a late-in-life celebrity.

Born of an Algerian father and a Brazilian mother who met as students in the U.S., Ainouz knew only of Madame Sata as the name of a Sao Paulo nightclub he went to in the '80s. The Brazilian-born Ainouz, who became an NYU film student in 1987 after studying architecture at the University of Brasilia and has maintained an apartment in New York ever since, was editing a short in Banff, Canada, in the early 1990s when he read "The Memoirs of Madame Sata."

"It was really cold, it was so far away from Brazil, and I thought, 'My God, who was this man?' " A grant from the Rotterdam Film Festival enabled him to return to Brazil to do six months' research into Dos Santos' life and to start writing a script for what would become his first feature after having been an assistant director on such films as "Poison," "Swoon" and "Postcards From America."

It would take years to realize the project, which finally came together when producers Isabel Diegues and Walter Salles, acclaimed director of "Central Station," came aboard -- Ainouz was one of the writers of Salles' "Behind the Sun."

In retrospect, Ainouz says he is grateful for the delays because it enabled him to focus more sharply on the essentials of Dos Santos' life, moving away from straightforward biography to focus on the years in which he discovered and began developing his identity as a performance artist.

"Madame Sata" concludes with Dos Santos gunning down a man who cursed him for being black and for being gay, which led to a 10-year prison sentence. Emerging unbowed, Dos Santos won a 1942 Carnival costume contest, calling himself Madame Sata for the first time.

While shooting, Ainouz said he asked himself what it was that made him want do this film. "I discovered that Dos Santos simply liked life and was prepared to fight for it by any means. He had a profound understanding of the gift of life."

While "Madame Sata" shows Dos Santos pimping and thieving when not performing or fighting in the streets, Ainouz also discovered that he was a master of the domestic arts, learning to cook, clean, sew and launder in Rio brothels, where he also experimented sexually and discovered his attraction to men.

Over the years Dos Santos, in addition to other crimes, would be convicted of brawling and public sex. During one incarceration, the warden's wife was so impressed with Dos Santos' laundering skills she insisted that when her husband was transferred to another prison that Dos Santos would follow.

According to Ainouz, Dos Santos accepted imprisonment with equanimity. It was when Dos Santos followed a singer, becoming her dresser, from a brothel to a nightclub, where she performed one of Josephine Baker's greatest hits, "Nuit d'Alger," that he discovered his calling.

Dos Santos had countless lovers but declared he had had only two great loves. He formed households in tiny Lapa apartments with prostitutes and their children and with his "assistants" in crime, transvestite prostitutes who served as maids at home and in the streets would lure johns they and Dos Santos would often rob.

Lazaro Ramos plays Dos Santos as a man with a fiery temperament and defiant pride but who is also deeply paternal and protective of the prostitutes and "maids" with whom he formed a series of families, raising a total of seven children, none of them his own. Dos Santos could be as tender as he could be violent, and to his astonishment Ainouz said he discovered living next door to his own mother a Santeria priest who in his Navy days in the 1940s had been a lover of Dos Santos. In "Madame Sata" Ainouz, to keep things simple, depicts Dos Santos living with but one woman and her child and with one "maid."

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