• Lázaro Ramos as João Francisco (aka Madame Satã). (Supplied)Source: Supplied
João Francisco dos Santos was a hustler, a martial artist, a drag queen and a revolutionary icon whose story has been translated to the screen.
Stephen A Russell

6 May 2016 - 9:07 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 9:18 AM

A mercurial spirit, João Francisco dos Santos was infamous on the street of Rio de Janeiro long before he donned lace and pearls to become notorious drag queen extraordinaire, Madame Satã.

One of many assumed names evoking a flair for the dramatic, including the Negress of the Bulacoche and Jamacy, Queen of the Forest, the real dos Santos was born at the turn of last century to former slaves in Brazil’s north-east, one of 17 brothers, shortly after the abolition of the slave trade. He may have been poor, gay and black, but heaven help anyone who would try and keep him at heel.

Squirreling himself away in the thriving den of iniquity that was Rio’s bohemian Lapa district in the 1930s - teeming with artists, thieves, sex workers and their many admirers - he was working the clubs first as an occasional chef and full-time player, then as a drag performer basing his act on Parisian greats like the American-born Josephine Baker. Dos Santos became a magnet for both racist and homophobic abuse, not that he flinched.

By all accounts hyper-masculine, quick to anger and a master of capoeira martial arts, he was a street-fighting man and canny hustler who subverted gender expectations, adopting several children all the while challenging homophobes to take him on. Most couldn’t, and though he largely stuck to hand-to-hand combat, one man died with a bullet in his back, earning dos Santos 10 years in jail - just one of many stretches.

It’s this rich period that Brazilian writer/director Karim Aïnouz (Futuro Beach) hones in on in his multi award-winning 2002 feature debut Madame Satã, now available at SBS On Demand and led by an electric turn from a toweringly muscular Lazaro Ramos in the title role.

Opening with a close up of dos Santos stripped-bare though undaunted in a stark and grimy prison cell, a voiceover annunciates his many misdemeanours. Co-scripted by Marcelo Gomes, Sérgio Machado and Mauricio Zacharias, it’s a thrillingly non-linear firecracker of a film that captures the incendiary nature of his dangerous passions.

As we see dos Santos lip-synching backstage during a performance by Renata Sorrah’s ageing showgirl, we know it’s only matter of time until he supplants her. When bouncers prevent him from entering a popular club, demeaning him because of his background, it's them who end up sprawled on the floor, gasping for breath. Felipe Marque’s handsome young punk Renatinho, with light fingers and a penchant for cocaine, may try to square up against dos Santos in a bar toilet, but pretty soon the younger man’s submitting in bed in a heated scene dripping with erotic charge.

As incandescent as Ramos’ performance is, Aïnouz resists the temptation to glamourise dos Santos or the ramshackle world in which he lives an almost feral life. The tremulous fury carried just beneath his glistening skin appears insatiable, even when in the company of his closest confidantes. “There's something eating me up inside," dos Santos says to fellow sex worker, best friend and tenant Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo), who responds, “It's like you're angry for being alive.”

One angelic toddler, Laurita’s daughter, represents the many orphans dos Santos harboured in real life. Though clearly doting on the child, he’s not above holding a knife to the neck of her mother when the rage takes him. Likewise the nervy and effeminate Tabu, a fellow drag artist and hustler who shares their home and functions as something of a servant, oft the brunt of dos Santos’ wild temper. Aïnouz knows just how to work the taut atmosphere hovering over this otherwise loving household.

It’s only truly when he becomes Madame Satã that dos Santos finds some peace under the bright lights of the stage, entertaining lascivious drunkards who, for one brief moment, admire him rapturously as a beautiful woman. Aïnouz wisely makes us wait for this transformation, which in real life occurred after his release from that decade-long stretch inside, after which he was crowned with the Best Costume award at the 1942 Carnaval.

The stage name Madame Satã was an homage to The Ten Commandments director Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan, relaying the story of a high society woman who aims to win back her philandering husband’s affections by disguising herself as an intriguing she-devil at a masquerade.

By the time of dos Santos’ death from lung cancer at 76, he had spent almost one third of his life behind bars and a good portion of the rest of it entertaining in disreputable bars as Madame Satã. Handsomely shot by cinematographer Walter Carvalho, Aïnouz’ film perfectly encapsulates this wicked game, with Ramos hellishly good.

You can watch the full movie at SBS On Demand.