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Wellspring presents
Madame Satã (2002)

"I'm a queer by choice! It doesn't make me any less of a man!"
- Madame Satã (Lázaro Ramos)

Review By: Robert Edwards   
Published: March 17, 2004

Stars: Lázaro Ramos, Marcelia Cartaxo, Flavio Bauraqui, Fellipe Marques
Director: Karim Aïnouz

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, sex, nudity)
Run Time: 01h:39m:17s
Release Date: January 13, 2004
UPC: 720917540924
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B-A-A- B+

DVD Review

João Francisco dos Santos, a.k.a. Benedito Emtabajá da Silva, a.k.a. Madame Satã became a cult figure in Brazil after his death in 1976. He was a complex figure, who not only won many prizes for his fanciful costumes for Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval, but also spent over a third of his life in prison, for offences ranging from theft to murder.

Director Karim Aïnouz paints an indelible, if sometimes difficult to watch, portrait of seminal events in dos Santos' life in Madame Satã. We begin with a medium shot of dos Santos' (Lázaro Ramos) face, bloodied and bruised, as a litany of complaints is read out against him, then flash back to the events leading up to his arrest in the Rio district know as Lapa. It's a lower-class neighborhood, filled with characters who manage to eke out some semblance of happiness in spite of their privation, and Aïnouz shows us both dos Santos' domestic life with his friends Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo) and Tabu (Flavio Bauraqui), and their frequent evenings spent in the neighborhood's seedy bars and nightclubs. We see João and Tabu rolling tricks, João at work as a valet to the cabaret singer Vitória (Renata Sorrah) and his growing relationship with the handsome Renato (Fellipe Marques), and not only the abuse, but the tenderness between the three members of this non-nuclear family.

Aïnouz concentrates on the complex character of João, and it in this character that the movie not only fascinates but occasionally repels. João is filled with anger, and frequently treats everyone around him with contempt, even those closest to him. Even Tabu, who is his partner in petty crime as well as his servant, is the victim of João's verbal and physical abuse. Things are better with Laurita and her baby, but João still blows up in anger at her lack of appreciation for one of his attention-seeking performances. He's incredibly self-centered, and even his positive actions (defending his friends, fighting—in some sense—against social injustice) are tainted by the negative aspects of his personality. In the supplementary materials, we learn of dos Santos' background (growing up poor in rural Brazil, traded at an early age by his mother for a mule) and economic situation (the Brazilian government essentially forced blacks into poverty), but this information isn't presented in the film, and any sympathy that these biographical details might engender is thus lost.

Despite one's personal reaction to the main character, the film has much to admire. The sets and shooting locations convey a real sense not only of the shabby neighborhood and the near-squalor that surrounds the characters in their daily lives, but also the low-rent glitz and glamour of their frequent excursions into Lapa's night life and João's performances. Scene after scene is strikingly lit, frequently with extreme contrasts of light and dark. Aïnouz's visual style is interesting, often using an extremely shallow depth of field that highlights a face or object in crystal-clear focus, the rest of the scene lost in blur. He uses jump cuts and extreme closeups with rapid editing, fractures the image in mirrors, and frequently violates the old rule that says the camera can't cross the 180° axis, all to convey excitement, joy, and heightened emotion. His style does frequently call attention to itself, but it's always appropriate to what's being expressed on the screen, and never become annoying or overly artsy.

The occasional 1930s songs on the soundtrack add to the film's authenticity, and the performances—especially Lázaro Ramos as João—are mostly very good. With all that is interesting and occasionally beautiful in Madame Satã, it seems a shame to criticize it for its apparently historically accurate portrayal of its main protagonist, but the character is simply too repellent, and the film suffers as a result.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic transfer is very good, with lots of detail, although occasional scenes are slightly soft. Contrasts come through well, from the brightest whites to the deep blacks, but there's a strange greenish tint to the image, which is not mentioned in the director's commentary (unlike other aspects of the image) and may very well be a flaw in the transfer. Grain is thankfully absent, and there is no edge enhancement or compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Portugueseyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 mix is incredibly dynamic, with constant activity in the surrounds, whether the music from João's performances or the ambient sounds of the urban environment. But the volume on the surround channels is too high, and they are best reduced by a decibel or two for maximum enjoyment. The two-channel mix, while still engaging, is predictably less enjoyable than the 5.1 mix, which is the option of choice.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Carnage, Les Destinées, Ran, Russian Ark, Under the Sand, Adventures of Felix, Yi Yi
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Karim Aïnouz
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Keep Case
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Seams, a documentary by director Karim Aïnouz
Extras Review: Despite the promise that a 25m:15s "making-of" might be more in-depth and interesting than the usual fluff featurette, that is not the case here, as The Making of Madame Satã consists of little more than the actors discussing their characters. There are a few comments by Aïnouz and other crew members, and some behind-the-scenes footage, but there's not much of interest here. Why the director chose to include several minutes of split-screen footage, in which seemingly every crew member introduces him- or herself, is a mystery, and their are numerous audio problems.

Aïnouz's commentary, however, more than makes up for the tedium of the documentary, and is in fact one of the best director's commentaries I've heard on a DVD. He discusses Brazil's historical situation and how its government's policies resulted in the economic devastation of blacks, their migration to Rio de Janeiro and the resultant explosion of black culture, and dos Santos' background and life. Aïnouz's remarks about his own personal vision and visual style, and working with cinematographer Walter Carvalho are interesting, and he further explains his use (and non-use) of storyboards, improvisation and sets. In short, this is an excellent commentary, and adds greatly to one's appreciation of the film.

Seams is a short (28m:12s) full-frame documentary written, produced and directed by Aïnouz in 1993 in New York. In it, he mixes found historical footage, home movies, video interviews, and new footage to create a complex mix of memory, biography and cultural comment. The bulk of its running length consists of inteviews with Aïnouz's grandmother and her four sisters, but he adds in a filmed recreation of a story of one of their relatives, excerpts from letters from his mother, and his own English-language narration. His great-aunts' amazingly unsentimental comments about men and marriage are mixed with explanations of attitudes toward sex roles prevalent in Aïnouz's birthplace in Northeastern Brazil, and an analysis of slang words used to describe them, as well as Aïnouz's own uncomfortable admission to his grandmother that at age 26 he didn't have a girlfriend. While it's nothing like Madame Satã, Seams shows another, equally skilled side of director Aïnouz.

The nonamamorphic trailer's transfer is not as good as that of the main feature, and has faded color. A collection of seven other trailers is also included, as well as a page of web links and a DVD offer.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Director Karim Aïnouz's portrayal of Brazilian gay cult figure Madame Satã is skillfully filmed and beautiful to look at, but Satã himself is fairly repugnant. The transfer is very good and the extras mostly worthwhile.


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