Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 28, 2003 2:39 pm 
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Campy liberation

João Francisco dos Santos was a real life Rio drag queen or effeminate performer in the Thirties and Forties who was a singer and dancer and a fighter and lover who went to prison many times in his 76-year life including ten years for murder, yet came out after that long stretch and immediately won the prize for the best costume in Carnaval, a boldly spectacular one based on Cecil B. De Mille’s character “Madam Satan.” Aïnouz’s first film features a fiery, committed performance by the actor Lázaro Ramos. The movie’s look is important and evocative: the images are uniformly dark and contrasty, not unlike some of Chris Doyle's glorious ones for Wong Kar Wai, with the color dropped down here so far it looks like tinted black and white, and this creates a vivid Brazilian Thirties look. You can smell the cheap perfumes and cologne and the brilliantine on the slicked back hair, and the sweat and the blood and the tears.

João epitomizes and transcends a type of tough, resilient, talented black “sissy” who’s no less a man for being attracted to men. Born to slaves and sold as a child, he was consumed by a rage that only strutting and performing could relieve. João lives with what he calls a “limp queen” (Taboo, played by Flavio Bauraqui) whom he protects but often scorns, and a woman whom he’s saved and who loves him (Laurita, Marcélia Cartaxo). The other member of the household is Laurita’s baby girl. They all live in the low, sinister ‘bohemian’quarter of Rio known as Lapa.

For a time João works as a theatrical assistant at a club where he mouths the French lyrics of the chanteuse and her recitation of a pastiche of the 1001 Nights – till he attacks her for being cruel and condescending to him and fights off a half dozen cops and then flees after robbing the club owner for not paying his salary. He has already connected with a lover, Renatinho (Felipe Marquez), a small, pretty light skinned man (and a petty thief) who begs João to show him how to fight. More than once João fends off surrounding teams of heavies or cops like some curious cross-dressing forerunner of Bruce Lee.

Madam Satã progresses through a series of darkly etched vignettes. The subdued lighting causes scenes to flicker out as if candles had burned away or the electricity had failed. At first it may seem as though there’s not much here but atmosphere, ample though that may be, and because he’s so rejected and lowly, João’s flamboyant theatricality in every action begins to seem rather fruitless. But every encounter is intense – the vignette format aids in that effect –especially the love and war clashes between João and his “Indian prince,” Renatinho – and there’s a strong sense of how this brave, irrepressible man lived his life. On first meeting the two snort coke and kiss in the club restroom and Renatinho follows João home fawningly after observing his courage, asking for fighting lessons all the way.

Another strong relationship is with Laurita, and still another is with Amadór, owner of the much friendlier bar where João eventually blossoms as a macho reincarnation of Josephine Baker. When these performances begin, the movie finally bursts fully into life and all its promises of repressed talent and latent theatrical exoticism are powerfully, if only momentarily, fulfilled.

Provocation by a little homophobic drunk after one of these performances by João follows, and João goes out and shoots the little bigot in the street. His arraignment for this murder frames the movie, but the narrative of his later years follows as a coda, with a voiceover during a highly abstracted set of red hued images of João dancing a kind of Samba tarantella in his spectacular long satanic Carnaval costume. The closing “elenco” (credits) with brilliant carnival music is almost more spectacular than João’s triumphant Josephine-Bakeresque performances in the bar had been. One leaves the theater with a curious feeling of exhilaration. This is a movie that really builds and builds. The overriding notion it fosters is one of diamonds in the mud, beautiful tropical flowers that blossom in a swamp. Perversion and exoticism here seem not limp and flaccid but brave and vibrant.

There’s an energy in this first film by Karim Aïnouz that gives promise of an inextinguishable life force that’s only begun to be set loose on the screen. Lázaro Ramos, as João Francisco dos Santos, embodies his part completely. Exactly why some writers have found this movie incoherent is hard to see. Perhaps they weren’t properly tuned in. And it seems that some Brazilian viewers were put off. Well, the material is unconventional and bold. The sketches are impressionistic; the darkness leaves much to the imagination. But incoherent Madame Satã never is. Within the logic of talent and exclusion and bold desperation it all makes perfect sense, and the progression of a wild gay life is as clear as the many lives sketched so brilliantly in Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus. 2002 was a splendid year for movies in Rio purely on the strength of these two.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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