Grande Madame  

Lázaro Ramos kicks literal and figurative booty as a legendary Brazilian drag queen.

It's no given that audiences will embrace a passionately homosexual, drug-abusing male prostitute-cum-drag-queen, especially if he happens not to be a particularly nice person to boot. The cinematic tale of Madame Satã, however, has two big points in its favor. One -- the most obvious one -- is a dynamite leading performance by relative newcomer Làzaro Ramos, who brings a burning intensity to the screen. The other is ass-kicking. Satã, who more frequently went by the name of João Francisco dos Santos, is no whinging Hedwig bemoaning cruel fate, but rather a master of capoeira who can down his adversaries with a couple of kicks.

Useful talent, that, especially when one is constantly being called "nigger" or "faggot," or even the two words combined -- this is Brazil circa 1930, so the public utterance of such words is in no way taboo. But João's rage seems to go deeper than mere anger at discrimination; as one character says to him, "It's like you're angry just for being alive." As a wise puppet with pointy ears once said, "Anger leads to hate, hate leads ... to suffering!" and that seems to be the path here, as we first see João as a bruised face filling the screen. Criminal charges against him are read aloud, among them that he is allegedly a pederast, has no religion, speaks crudely, drinks, and smokes. The last charge is obviously tacked on -- who in the '30s didn't drink and smoke? -- and the pederasty claim clearly a generic charge leveled against most gays at the time, but we soon learn that João is no saint to be martyred for the gay rights cause.

The next time we see him, we've moved backwards in time, and he's practically forcing himself on a handsome young man named Renatinho (Felipe Marques) and helping himself to the fellow's drugs. Then he's spin-kicking a different guy in the head for harassing a female friend, only to turn around and claim that he actually kicked the guy for Renatinho's sake.

A strange form of courtship, but it works -- Renatinho and João are getting it on before too long. You can tell it's genuine, even though João is needlessly mean to his new loverboy. Anyone else he sleeps with tends to get scammed, in a routine similar to Adrien Brody's in Love the Hard Way -- João seduces closet cases, then gets his effeminate associate Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui) to come running in frenziedly, claiming the cops are raiding the building. The mark swiftly puts his clothes back on and flees, oblivious to the fact that João has cleaned out the unsuspecting dupe's wallet.

Much of the film's focus is on the unorthodox familial arrangement in which João lives. The woman whose honor he was defending in the beginning is Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), herself a prostitute, who functions more or less as João's wife. She has an infant daughter (Giovana Barbosa, one damn cute baby) who may or may not be João's; the degree to which he has any kind of heterosexual impulses is hinted at but never made as explicit as his homosexual ones. At any rate, he acts like the baby's father. Then there's Taboo, who lives with them both, and is like a younger brother or sister, or both in one. Though a partner in crime, he occasionally engages in more irresponsible acts than usual, like shtupping a cop in full view of the baby.

João's nonviolent side comes out when he watches a local cabaret dancer perform scenes from the Arabian Nights -- it's his love of that kind of show that ultimately entices him towards drag. He doesn't become Madame Satã till film's end, but given the movie's title that's hardly a spoiler -- in Brazil, this story is apparently well-known anyway, with João having achieved a sort of mythical status that makes it hard to discern the truth from urban legend.

It may be considered an odd choice that writer-director Karim Aïnouz leaves off right about the time the Satã persona comes into being, but perhaps he's leaving the door open for a sequel. Or, more likely, the origin of the character involves a higher degree of conflict than later escapades, and conflict, as we learned in all our writing classes, is the essence of drama. There are character conflicts aplenty here, but not a huge helping of narrative. You likely won't miss it, though: Ramos' hot-tempered turn is riveting, drawing out the charisma in what could easily be a hissable role; and cinematographer Walter Carvalho gives the proceedings a great look. If this film and City of God are typical of Brazil's film output these days, it bears suggesting that the next big trend in foreign cinema may have arrived.

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