It’s difficult enough for most people to understand the world of drag queens, transvestites, and female impersonators. When the subject of your film is from a foreign city, in this case Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the time period is sometime as obscure as the early 1930s, the difficulties involved in getting your audience to care, let alone identify with the subject in question, increases exponentially. Such are the challenges facing director Karim Ainouz in his wildly uneven biopic, “Madame Sata.”
Joao Francisco (Lazaro Ramos) is an aspiring performer and general seeker of the spotlight in Lapa, Rio’s bohemian district. While ostensibly scraping up a living helping out at a local nightclub, he actually earns the bulk of his income from committing petty crimes – mostly robbing unsuspecting young men whom he takes to his bed.
A street-smart hustler and dangerous street-fighter, Joao shows his softer side around his prostitute friend Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo) and her baby daughter who, along with the simpering drag queen Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui), form at least a semblance of a family. Yet, rage is never far away for Joao, an unfortunate byproduct of his irrepressible passion for life and determination to rise above his poverty stricken surroundings. It’s that very same rage that lands the flamboyant performer in prison several times throughout his life, thus making his goal of achieving stardom all the more difficult to attain.
Based on a true story, “Madame Sata” tells the tawdry tale of a complex entertainer who’s almost totally unknown within the United States. Far from sugar coating Joao’s life, Ainouz almost overcompensates in the opposite direction. The whole film is shot in a contrasty, bleached-out, sepia-toned style that exaggerates Joao’s gritty and depressing world.
The narrative to “Madame Sato” lacks structure, the film dashing from one disorienting episode to the next, while providing little to no connection between these incidents. This makes for a very frustrating viewing experience, further exacerbating the unpleasantness of being part of this unsavory world, as does the undeniable fact that all the main characters are loud, crude, obnoxious and just grating in general.
“Madame Sata” may be based on real events, but it’s certainly not a very pleasant introduction to Rio’s bohemian scene, circa 1931. Nor is it a very pleasant movie to endure in its own right.