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Down and dirty in Rio 

Class, crime and drag collide in Madame Satã

João Francisco dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos) dreams of something beyond the grotty slums of his native Rio de Janeiro. By day he works in a posh cabaret, watching the house chanteuse adoringly from behind a spangly curtain. By night he frequents The Blue Danube bar in the bohemian grotto of Lapa, home to prostitutes of both sexes, drug snorting and every perversity for sale or lease. Despite the mix of blacks and whites, a cruel hierarchy of racial inequality is maintained in even the lowliest Brazilian society, and João Francisco indisputably occupies society's bottom rung. João Francisco has many strikes against him: He is black, gay, poor and possessed of a mercurial temper.

Madame Satã is director Karim Ainouz's ambitious but uneven chronicle of the early, despairing days of João Francisco dos Santos, one of Brazil's stars who commanded the Carnivals of the '40s between long stints in jail. Madame Satã features a surprisingly contemporary gay subculture and graphic sexual talk that is all the more amazing because the film is set in 1932.

João Francisco lives in a rat hole section of Rio with a motley pair of roommates -- slatternly hooker Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), who has the hysterical laughter of the damned, and the effeminate, masochistic Taboo (Flávio Bauraqui).

The trio live out their own punishing version of family, with João Francisco the cruel father, Laurita the tainted mama and Taboo the disobedient child. The only hint of virtue and promise in these despairing circumstances is Laurita's infant daughter, whom João Francisco treats with uncharacteristic tenderness.

Despite his slicked back hair, confidant carriage and elegant clothes, João Francisco cannot win the respect he craves because of his marginal status. He is thrown out of chic clubs and denied his pay at the cabaret Lux where he works. He is also a born fighter guided by equal parts ego, bruised pride and masochism, who courts respectability by donning the glitter and demeanor of a drag diva styled after Josephine Baker. But the only time anyone seems to respect him is when he succumbs to the stereotype of the gutter brute and fights or bullies his way to dominance.

Brazilian-born director Ainouz's film often recalls Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary about New York drag balls, Paris is Burning, in which drag's outsized elegance is an extravagant means of denying a sordid reality. It comes as no surprise that Ainouz attended New York University, or that he once worked on the sets of Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon. The sensibility of hip gay filmmaking culture past and present defines Madame Satã.

Ainouz's film is a show biz biography with little trace of that genre's up-from-the-bootstraps optimism. Madame Satã instead looks at stardom as a measly, vicious struggle to scavenge some scrap of dignity from a thoroughly reviled and beaten down existence.

For that reason, it may be one of the truest expressions of where the narcissistic, needy drive of performers comes from. But it is also a portrait woefully in need of some rationale for all of its ugliness, or some greater appreciation of the divide between João Francisco's impoverished past and celebrated future. Madame Satã is filled with repugnant characters, including its hero, whose relentless sadism and continual scowl make his disgust clear but rarely allow access to his pain. Like its hero, Madame Satã is not the kind of film whose company you want to keep for very long.

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