João Francisco dos Santos (the remarkable Lázaro Ramos) has three strikes against him: he's poor, he's black, and he's homosexual. In the Rio de Janeiro of the early 1930s, where slavery is a 34-year-old memory, this is a bad combination; João's responses to this world usually make things worse. Every act against him, every single slight, feeds an incredible anger that too easily takes him over. He lashes out against everyone and everything.
João, however, does have one source of happiness in his life. He first appears as the assistant to cabaret singer Vitória dos Anjos (Renata Sorrah). Watching him watch her from the wings, perfectly replicating her performance, it quickly becomes clear that João is the one who should be in front of the crowd. He and Vitória part company rather painfully, placing him beyond this world for most of the movie, but this self-described disciple of Josephine Baker dreams until he finds a way to create his own realities.
Madame Satã is a difficult movie. For an American with scant knowledge of Brazilian culture and the history of samba, and no knowledge of Madame Satã as historical figure, huge parts of this movie are inaccessible, period. The plot compounds the inaccessibility by covering only a small part of João Francisco's life, and even less of Madame Satã. From what I can tell, several dimensions of João's life (for example, his intellectualism and interaction with the press) have been omitted; other aspects are compressed (such as a real-life role as caretaker to seven children into a fierce protectiveness of Laurita's little baby Firmina). I left the theater really feeling hungry for more context.
Although violence is integral to the story, I don't think I've seen a movie in which the protagonist was so uniformly abusive to every single person he encounters, including the people who love him: Laurita, a prostitute (Marcelia Cartaxo), and Tabu, the transvestite servant/prostitute/slave (Flavio Bauraqui). They spend a good part of the movie cringing because they don't know when he'll suddenly turn violent. Even his interactions with his lover Renatinho (Felipe Marques) are battles, and he beats the crap out of him (and cuts his face with a razor) when Renatinho tries to rob him after an intensive bout of lovemaking. The only person not subject to his wrath is Firmina, the baby. But João can change in the blink of an eye: he flips from blows to fierce protector of his "family," beating up a gun-wielding john who won't take no from Laurita. It becomes understandable when the threesome try to get into an upper-class club that doesn't admit "prostitutes and bums," but others stream in around them; João explodes, attacking the bouncers, repeatedly kicking one after he's down, not stopping even as Tabu runs away and Laurita yells at him to stop, not finishing until he's exhausted.
The camera work in the movie is a little up in the air. The early parts are marked by shots that play up both João's physicality and innate violence: he lies on the beach, covered with droplets of sweat and water; he and Renatinho wrestle, lick, move, and sweat in bed. However, partway through the movie, as he starts his performance life, the hand-held camera effects become much more obvious, and the chaos of dancing and performance move in and out of focus, sometimes at inappropriate moments.
The music is wunnerful. This is a samba movie, and from the clubs to Carnival samba almost claims a role of its own (one big reason to regret not knowing the history). One really mesmerizing scene includes Laurita and Tabu dancing to a vintage recording of Se Voce Jurar (Francisco Alves / Mario Reis) as they celebrate João's release from prison. This is the music of these people and this era, as they would have heard it. It pushed me into hunting down some recordings.
Today João likely would be diagnosed with a personality disorder, but it would be a mistake to dismiss his actions as meaningless violence or out-of-control behavior. João may be an outlaw and an outcast, but he lives his life the way does because he has no other choice. His anger and his self-expression come from continual conflict against a world which will never accept him - and thus will never meet social norms. Twenty-seven of the real João's seventy-six years were spent in prison, and it's not hard to see why.