This Brazillian film is gorgeous to look at. From the opening titles on, reds and golds dominate, and there’s plenty of smoky 1930’s nightclubs, sailors, drugs and colored beads thrown in to keep the whole thing popping along. What’s missing from Madame Sata is a more structured narrative, and it does lose its way a little in the last third. Until then though, it’s fun to watch and quite rewarding, and Lazaro Ramos is sweaty and charismatic in the title role.
An uneducated descendant of slaves, Joao Francisco Dos Santos was a streetfighter/kickboxer who survived the streets of 1930s Rio through pimping, prostitution and, worst of all, dressing an washed-up and racist lounge singer. He began his own popular cabaret act, rechristened himself Madame Sata (Sata is Portuguese for Satan), but soon after began a ten year prison sentence for murder. After his release, he became a legendary fixture of Carnivale, won the Best Costume award several times and became a Brazillian pop culture star before dying of old age in 1976.
This film concentrates on the period leading up to his imprisonment, with Joao/Madame Sata an unmistakable figure in the Rio underworld. Constantly in trouble with the police, and a little bit in love with a handsome drifter, Joao turns tricks with his flatmate Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui) and parties with best friend Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo) whose young daughter he lovingly cares for (by the end of his life he’d been the surrogate father to half a dozen children). Joao wants to be a famous singer, in the style of his idol Josephine Baker, but his quest for the stage becomes politicised as his enemies endlessly try to trip him up with his homosexuality and his flamboyance.
It’s an evocative snapshot but when I read the title cards at the close of the film about Madame Sata’s later fame, I wished the film makers had chosen a different period of his life, or a different structure altogether. There’s no real exploration about his love of cabaret, or costume, beyond the fact that he’s a theatrical queen who loves applause. A little like a street parade, Madame Sata is quite entertaining, but ultimately, just passes by and disappears.