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.
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.
As in a Sam Fuller movie, everyone in The Holy Land is a type and everything is crazy. The war is ubiquitous, Mike rarely stops ranting, the Exterminator kisses his machine gun and plans to re-establish Jewish control of the Temple Mount. Violence is all around—along with the clamor of clashing cultures. (The dialogue is mainly English with a mixture of Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic.) Still, it sometimes seems as though greater Israel is populated by six guys, a hooker, and Mendy’s rabbi, who ultimately appears at Mike’s to accuse the boy of “urinating in the King’s Palace” and threaten to report his behavior to his ultra-orthodox parents.
Thanks to an American-born mother, Mendy has a precious U.S. passport. He and Sasha share a fantasy of relocating to the States. The Holy Land is scarcely the first Jewish text predicated on the worldly corruption of an unworldly devout, but its evocation of Israel’s warring underworlds gives it additional force; the closer can only be construed as divine retribution.
Peppino, the eponymous hero of The Embalmer, is a little guy with an outsize personality and a big yen for young Valerio—not too bright but, as Peppino fervently puts it, “handsome as a god.”
One of the hits of last spring’s “New Directors/New Films,” opening next week at the Quad, The Embalmer more than matches The Holy Land for erotic obsession and ambiguity, although it’s a moodier, more melancholy and sardonic tale. Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux) and Valerio (male model Valerio Foglia Manzillo) meet at the Naples zoo and bond over an African vulture; the fiftyish taxidermist offers young Valerio a job as his assistant; Valerio gets thrown out of his brother’s house, moves in with his new boss, and soon this Mutt and Jeff odd couple are embarking on foursomes with Roman hookers.
Taxidermy is one of the more sinister professions that one can practice in the movies, and not surprisingly, affable Peppino has his creepy dark side. Summoned by his Mafia padrone, he’s dispatched to Cremona to sew a shipment of drugs into a corpse. Along for the ride, Valerio picks up a footloose cashier with surgically enhanced lips named Deborah (Elisabetta Rocchetti). Peppino isn’t pleased and not just because Deborah’s idea of a party is to dress desperate little Peppino like a doll. Battle is joined as the two need-monsters struggle over the befuddled Valerio, whose brains seemingly reside in his prodigious, never seen but oft commented on, member.
Inspired by a recent police case, The Embalmer is skillfully directed and adroitly acted. Like Madame Satã, it benefits from its restraint. As the saturated colors are keyed to a wintry lowering sky, so the grotesque relationships seem to arise out of some abandoned fairground. The Embalmer has the look of naturalized Fellini and, in its nearly unblinking analysis of human power relations, a story worthy of Fassbinder.
“Rio Men Have Curves: Madame Satã Director Karim Aïnouz” by Ed Halter