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Celebrating an outlaw

'Madame Sata' is a mesmerizing portrait of a legendary Rio pimp, brimming with sex, violence and the affirmation of life amid squalor.

August 22, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Karim Ainouz's "Madame Sata" brings alive a legendary Rio outlaw with a ferocious yet lyrical intensity. Joao Francisco dos Santos (1900-76) was larger than life, a tall, muscular black man and a master of capoeira, a form of martial arts transported from Africa by slaves. He was a pimp and a thief who spent more than a third of his life behind bars. He was also unabashedly gay and became a popular entertainer in the bars of Lapa, Rio's red-light district and Bohemian quarter.

One of 17 children of an ex-slave, Dos Santos hit the streets of Rio at 12 or 13 and came of age working as a servant in a series of brothels, discovering his sexual orientation in a notably nonjudgmental environment.

Ainouz opens his film with a head shot of a brutalized but unbowed Dos Santos (Lazaro Ramos) listening without expression as he receives a 10-year sentence for murder. Moving back in time, Ainouz show us Dos Santos living in a tiny apartment in Lapa, a dense, picturesque neighborhood of ancient, grimy but elegant buildings, cobblestone alleys and rowdy bars and cabarets. Dos Santos shares the apartment with Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), a prostitute, her infant daughter Firmina (Giovana Barbosa), and Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), a transvestite prostitute.

Dos Santos is much more than Laurita and Taboo's pimp. He's all business when it comes to commercial sex and has a quick, often violent temper, but he is also deeply paternal. He is a husband in all but sex to Laurita, a caring, loving surrogate father to her child and a protector to Taboo, with whom he often teams to relieve johns of their wallets.

The family that Dos Santos has formed lives a hard, dangerous, frequently violent existence, but its members know how to enjoy life, going on frequent outings to beaches and parks like any other family. Even so, Dos Santos remains consumed by a rage fueled by racism, poverty and injustice. Yet when a handsome man, such as the smoldering Renatinho (Felipe Marques), attracts him, he is an amusingly confident pursuer.

While serving as a dresser to a nightclub singer (Renata Sorrah) he finds himself happily imitating her offstage as she sings his idol Josephine Baker's "Nuit d'Alger," which relates the story of Scheherazade and her 1001 nights of tales. This is the beginning of his discovery of what he calls the "ecstatic joy" of performing and of creating an array of exotic personae: the Negress of Bulacoche and Jamacy, queen of the forest.

Much later, Dos Santos proclaims he is Madame Sata and wears a costume inspired by the one Kay Johnson wears in Cecil B. DeMille's "Madame Satan," a favorite movie of Dos Santos.

In performing, Dos Santos discovers both a way of releasing rage and of getting in touch with his feminine side, as it were, through creative expression, which includes his elaborate costumes and makeup. Rather than a female impersonator, Dos Santos is a gender-bender. His first costume combines a sarong with ropes of beads strung over his bare torso. He wears a Folies Bergere-style headdress and lots of makeup and glitter.

He becomes a performance artist of paradox and contradiction and, not surprisingly, not everyone can handle this. That 10-year sentence may have cut short Dos Santos' dream of entertainment stardom, but it so reinforced his survival skills that he was able to emerge as fixture in Rio carnivals and a legend in the bars and clubs of Lapa. His dictated memoirs brought him celebrity late in life.

Walter Carvalho's cinematography, in a sooty, high-contrast color, expresses the ravishing beauty and raw emotions of "Madame Sata." In a daringly ambitious feature directorial debut, Ainouz, one of the writers on Walter Salles' "Behind the Sun," frequently gets close to his people, to whom he is totally and passionately committed, yet retains a rigorous and crucial detachment. His actors give themselves over to Ainouz completely, and their trust inspires in them an array of beautifully modulated yet no-holds-barred portrayals.

What emerges in Ainouz and Ramos' mesmerizing portrait of Dos Santos is a fearless man who had the courage to explore and express every aspect of his being. He was prepared to pay the price, whatever the cost, for being himself. Every impassioned frame of "Madame Sata" expresses Karim Ainouz's belief that Joao Francisco dos Santos' greatest strength was his ability to appreciate the preciousness of the gift of life.


Madame Sata

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong sexuality, language, violence, nudity, some drug use

Lazaro Ramos...Joao Francisco dos Santos

Marcelia Cartaxo...Laurita

Flavio Bauraqui...Taboo

Felipe Marques...Renatinho

Emiliano Queiroz...Amador

A Wellspring release of a Videofilmes production in association with Wild Bunch, Lumiere and Dominant 7. Writer-director Karim Ainouz. Producers Isabel Diegues, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Donald K. Ranvaud, Marc Beauchamps. Cinematographer Walter Carvalho. Editor Isabela Monteiro de Castro. Music Marcos Suzano, Sacha Ambak. Production designer Marcos Pedroso. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379; and the University 6, Campus Dr. opposite UCI, Irvine, (800) FANDANGO No. 43.

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