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Brazil has been producing some intense movies in the past few years, all seemingly focusing on human misery. We had in particular, recently, the incredible City Of God and not-as-amazing-but-still-quite-impressive Carandiru. Along with Madame Sata, those 3 film certainly paint a bleak view of Brazil as the world center of human misery which nevertheless allow for many unforgettable and lovable characters.
Madame Sata is supposed to be a loose portrait of Joao Francisco dos Santos, a popular figure in Brazil from the 1940's to the 1970's. He was a proud homosexual, a transvestite at times, a thief, an adoptive father of 8 children, a popular hero and a convict, having been jailed close to 25 years out of the 76 he lived through for things from robbery to murder. He is supposedly a really important local figure from Rio de Janeiro, a man who won for many years the Best Costume award at the Rio Carnival. From the little i read about this man, he was a complex, strange, person, sweet and caring one moment, and ultra violent the next, a Man who, in spite of being less than recommendable, managed to etch out a place in the popular culture of his country.
Watching this movie however, you wouldn't get any idea of all of that. For 105 minutes, you learn nothing about this man except that he was a petty thief, a flaming homosexual, and that he committed a murder. You barely get to know him as a person and especially, understand the source of the fascination he exerted. This is a man who had a place in most of the cultural circles in Rio, and he was frequently seen with the leading intellectuals, writers, poets and artists there. He had an entourage. Who were all those people? For a comparison, Frida successfully manages to make us understand Frida's place in the world of her time. You do get to understand how she fits with her entourage, her political, artistic and personal views. In Madame Sata, you simple don't get a single clue. It's simple: had i not read about this character, i wouldn't have even imagined that he may have been so important.
So, in this respect, this movie is unfortunately a failure. The story focuses too narrowly on a small part of Madame Sata's life that also happens to be very boring all in all. His reputation only started to establish itself in the 1940's, and the movie focuses on his life before that, in the early 1930's. There is also a strong bias towards showing his fairly open homosexuality (in graphic details for those who would care to know). For a good half of the movie in the middle, all you get is basically a Gay movie without much substance at all, something that felt exploitative to me. The problem here is that again, from what i read, homosexuality was but a part of this complex and rich character, whereas in the movie, it is painted pretty much as his defining trait. It's simplistic, and insulting. Finally, he committed a murder in the mid 1930's and was sent to jail for 10 years. The movie shows him going to jail, spends a few minutes on him meeting with his cell mates, and then the movie jumps to the day he is released. Anyone who knows anything about prisons in Rio knows that some pretty important things must have happened in those 10 years to further develop this character. For over an hour, we had seen nothing more than a genuinely uninteresting person, and i was really hoping to see his prison time develop him into something more. Of course, i was disappointed. I suspect that bad editing just made this movie worse than it could have been.
On other fronts, Lazaro Ramos has done a great job with the material he had for his performance of the lead character. I do not know the original Madame Sata, so it's hard to say whether the performance was accurate or not, but if this were a non biographical movie about a low-life petty homosexual thief in the slums of Rio in the 1930's, then his performance is very believable and raw. The supporting cast is also very good and managed to lift this failure of a movie to something one could at least watch once. The recreation of the slums of Rio in 1932 was also quite convincing. The details in the decors and costumes, and the warmth brought on by creative cinematography added another quality to this movie to balance all its faults.
This is in all honesty a failed movie because its main purpose was to present us with a story around a famous popular character in the Brazilian culture. Having seen Carandiru recently, i was especially excited to see another account of prison-life in Brazil, and given the importance of Madame Sata's character in the cultural fabric of Brazil, i was expecting something explosive. Instead, we get treated to the display of an average thug. The main fault is a stupid one in my opinion: focusing on the character way too early in his life, without giving us an inch of the constructive elements that will fashion his personae later on in his life. This is a character that demands an epic story telling of his life, someone who obviously had many defining moments in his life. It's like trying to make a movie about Mozart and setting the story during his bathroom breaks while he was trained as a musician, without giving an inkling about his father and how his raw genius was shaped into the one we all know. On the other hand however, the performances in the movie are all first rate, and the art direction and cinematography are very detailed, making this at least worth watching once if the subject matter is of any interest to you and can stand a mundane treatment of what seems to have been otherwise a fascinating life.
- Laurent Hasson