Released on the heels of City of God, Karim Aïnouz’s first feature, Madame Satã, is likewise a gritty, sweaty slice of history set in the violent slums of Rio. But while Fernando Meirelles repackages Rio’s gangsta legacy as sexy Scorsese variant—a multiplex-friendly Goodfavelas—Aïnouz takes a less obvious route. Eschewing tidy narrative in favor of warts-and-all episodic portrait, Satã (opening July 9 at Film Forum) portrays the formative years of 20th-century Brazilian folk hero João Francisco dos Santos, a black, gay, female-impersonating bohemian criminal, whose chameleonic, self-mythologized life emerges as a carnivalesque hybrid of Jean Genet, Jack Smith, and Pepper LaBeija—not to mention a capoeira-style Chuck Norris. The title references one of dos Santos’s many appellations (lifted from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 Madam Satan) and also evokes the contradictory decade depicted in Aïnouz’s film: Rio’s Weimarish 1930s, in which a new regime of relative cultural and sexual freedoms battled with the lingering repressions of 19th-century Brazil.
Aïnouz came to Satã through what he calls “a very oblique route.” Originally trained as an architect (one project involved public housing in Brasília), Aïnouz moved to New York to pursue an M.F.A. in painting but switched to cinema studies, eventually interning for Todd Haynes. “I remember going to Millennium and seeing Superstar and thinking, My God, it’s a political film, but this guy made it in his backyard. I wanted to learn how to do this. So I worked on Poison from prep up until the release of the film.”
Satã‘s seed emerged in 1994, after Aïnouz read a biography of dos Santos. “What attracted me was that he was super-Brazilian: joyful, full of life, colorful, and layered. At the same time, he was not at all Brazilian, because he was not about negotiating.” Aïnouz’s research led to newspaper archives, police records, old popular music, and dos Santos’s dictated autobiography, The Confessions of Madame Satã, which, tellingly, is riddled with half-truths and fantasy.
Years later, the film was produced on location in Rio with an ensemble cast, most in their first screen roles. Aïnouz’s architectural background emerges through Satã‘s intimate tenement aesthetic. Shot in antique, humid, claustrophobic slums, the actors’ bodies become muscular, tactile landscapes. “I wanted to look at the past, not in an antiseptic, nostalgic way,” he says, “but as something that was really dirty—there was no sewage at that time, it’s hot and people sweat a lot. The spaces they lived in were small.” The goal, Aïnouz says, was to evoke the characters not just through sight and sound, but through smell.
The desire to reconstruct history in all its messiness extended to dos Santos’s wild character. A murderer and thief, he makes for an uneasy gay pioneer. “He is not, ultimately, a good guy,” says Aïnouz. “He has a complex personality: very aggressive, yet very tender; quite cruel, but quite loyal. Everything in him is somewhat heightened. But I don’t see that as schizophrenia. I see that as extreme, but very human, behavior.” This self-contradiction, ultimately, also functions as a metaphor for Brazil.
“There’s a Gay Pride parade in Brazil now,” says Aïnouz, “that has grown from 60,000 people to 600,000 people in four years, but I think we are one of the top countries with gay killings. How do you negotiate that? You don’t. You go from one extreme to the other. And there’s something happening in Brazilian cinema that mirrors politics. President da Silva is just a working-class guy, a typical Brazilian. I think his election is an act of self-acceptance. This is what we are: We are bastards, and it’s great to be bastards. Its like filmmakers are losing the shame of portraying Brazil as it really is.”
Michael Atkinson’s review of City of God