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The Outside Chance

Lust for Life

A street-fighting, slum-dwelling male Josephine Baker wannabe, a virginal yeshiva student obsessed with a teenage Ukrainian hooker, a dwarf taxidermist who dreams of stuffing an amiable giant: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen could well open an auxiliary to accommodate the outcast protagonists of this week's three movies.

Madame Satã, the first feature written and directed by Brazilian-born, NYU-educated Karim Aïnouz, is the most programmatic of these marginality pageants. It may even be the ultimate crossover film; having won prizes all over the world, it's already been featured locally by both the Human Rights and Lesbian and Gay film festivals, and might easily have been festivalized as African Diaspora or New Latin American cinema. The hero, João Francisco dos Santos, suggests Jean Genet's dream after a night in Rio. But this bohemian outlaw, born only 12 years after slavery was abolished in Brazil, is a historical figure. In a way, he's even world-historical. Poor, black, queer, he's introduced staring into the camera as a jail sentence is pronounced—seemingly by life.

Set in the Rio slums in the early 1930s, Madame Satã is a paean to self-assertion and even a kind of showbiz success story. The movie opens on a faux Arabian Nights cabaret number with the diva's dresser João Francisco (given a dancer's visceral intensity by Lázaro Ramos) peeking raptly from behind the beaded curtain, watching in fevered close-up and lip-synching along. A humble star-worshiper at his place of employment, the tall, muscular, and formidably volatile João is more of a star at his after-hours hangout, a working-class bar romantically known as the Blue Danube. Indeed, he's a walking provocation.

Taking a licking: Lázaro Ramos and Felipe Marques in Madame Satã
photo: Kirsten Johnson
Taking a licking: Lázaro Ramos and Felipe Marques in Madame Satã

Details

Madame Satã
Written and directed by Karim Aïnouz
Wellspring
July 9 through 22, at Film Forum

The Holy Land
Written and directed by Eitan Gorlin
Cavu
Opens July 11, at the Angelika

The Embalmer
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Written by Garrone, Ugo Chiti, and Massimo Gaudioso
First Run
Opens July 18, at the Quad

This lowlife demiurge lives in coke-enlivened squalor, presiding over a ménage that includes a swishier queen named Taboo (Flavio Bauraqui) and the female whore Laurita (Marcelia Cartaxo). There's also a baby, who may or may not be João's—as well as plenty of sex, mostly involving a teenage lover who makes the mistake of trying to rob the joint. In all ways a dangerous character, João is clearly not to be messed with. He's crazy enough to attack, unarmed, a gun-toting fatso who gets physical with Laurita. And after his diva catches him dressing up in her costume and throws an insulting star-fit, he trashes her dressing room. When six cops show up to arrest him, he fights them all off and escapes.

Ultimately, João is sent to jail for "flouting authority"—his term, but surely a bulletin from the filmmaker. On his return to Rio, he's ready to come out—as a superstar. Performing his Baker numbers first for the mirror and then at the Blue Danube, covered in pasty jewels, waving his sinewy arms, and baring his chest, João is a one-man Mardi Gras. Predictably, his triumph is short-lived. He's hassled by a homophobic drunk and winds up back in jail for wreaking vengeance. His subsequent apotheosis as the Carnival queen "Madame Satã" (from Cecil B. DeMille's 1930 deco extravaganza Madam Satan) is noted in the end titles.

Madame Satã's mode is stylized but not hysterical. The tropicalist delirium is largely restricted to the staged numbers. Aïnouz worked on a number of key examples of the early-'90s New Queer Cinema, including Poison, Swoon, and Postcards From America, and his movie has a kindred sense of recovered history. (Although Madame Satã became a hero to the cultural wing of the Brazilian New Left, Aïnouz first knew the name as that of a punk nightclub in São Paulo.) Concerned with the myth before it became one, Aïnouz keeps his camera coolly close to the action. The studied compositions are propelled by the occasional jagged jump cut, but considering its legendary personality and the conventions of Brazilian cinema, Madame Satã is surprisingly understated. It can feel a bit slight and, given the epic sweep of its subject's life, somewhat underplotted. But there's no denying the incendiary power of Ramos's performance—he's present in nearly every scene. The movie is as much the story of his transformation into Madame Satã as it is João Francisco's.


There's no shortage of incident in writer-director Eitan Gorlin's The Holy Land. Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2002 Slamdance festival, this broadly acted first feature is exceedingly direct, appropriately sordid, and at times, almost delicate.

"I hope the Jews and Arabs kill each other until there is nobody left," Ukrainian "guest worker" Sasha (Tchelet Semel) is heard to declare under newsreel footage promising just that. You can't put it any more bluntly. All miniskirt and ringlets, baby-faced Sasha toils in a Tel Aviv bordello known as the Love Boat, and it is there that she meets the tormented Mendy (Oren Rehany), who has been sent to consort with a "harlot" after his teacher finds him reading Siddhartha.

The theory, presumably, is that the distracted youth will sow a wild oat and, tension discharged, return to his Torah studies. Instead, he goes searching for God in all the wrong places. Mendy falls haplessly in love with Sasha and comes under the spell of the barrel-chested bon vivant Mike (Saul Stein), a former combat photographer who operates the diviest joint in Jerusalem. Pretending that he has relocated to Jerusalem for enhanced holiness, Mendy winds up working in Mike's Place. Based on an establishment that the filmmaker himself frequented while studying at an Israeli yeshiva, Mike's is a fantastic version of the "everybody knows your name" bar; the regulars include several itinerant prophets, a friendly Arab dope smuggler, and an M16-toting Jewish settler who calls himself the Exterminator (and, like Mike, is an American). Sasha shows up on her free day and, in the course of a bizarre excursion to the West Bank, impulsively cuts off Mendy's earlocks. No going back now.

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