“The body of João Francisco dos Santos is the landscape of the film Madame Satã” – Karim Anouz

As Karim Aïnouz, director of Madame Satã, points out, João’s body is his sole possession. He lives in a triply stigmatised body; he is poor, black and homosexual. He both exhibits and hides this body.1 What Aïnouz means by the ‘landscape’ of the film is that João’s body is the focus and has a strong presence throughout every scene. João’s body plays a dual role; it is not only the object on which power is exerted onto him by authoritative figures – as highlighted in the film by his imprisonment – but also his instrument of power.2 He uses this power in two ways: to fight physically, and to challenge social norms and expectations. Through challenging these norms he is able to transcend traditional understandings of racial identity, masculinity and femininity.3 Madame Satã focuses very much on the physical: violence, sex, and João’s performance of the skin he lives in. In a sense, he is always on stage,4 playing different gender and racial roles to his advantage, and using his body as his weapon against a society that tries to oppress him. With Brazil’s ‘whitening ideal’ in place and the emerging notion of the “Negro problem”,5 many Brazilians of African descent became increasingly marginalised. João’s body is emphasised as the representation of the enslaved body,6 and it is this very body that he uses to fight social stigmas.

Throughout the film, João performs his body. His cross-dressing is an obvious example of his performance of gender, but this is not exclusive to the stage. He also performs gender off-stage by incorporating feminine and masculine characteristics at his convenience. To the drunkard who begins to hurl racial and homophobic insults at him, João replies that being a bicha does not make him any less of a man.7 This is evident in the way in which he not only performs as a woman, but also uses his body to assert authority, channelling his malandro side, that is, his violent and ‘masculine’ side. This very scene illustrates João’s duality. He is not only telling this man who has verbally abused him that he is a man, but by retaliating violently, he is physically showing him. The malandro lived a hedonistic lifestyle; he was seen as a hustler and a womaniser.8 However, as a gay man, João does not conform to the typical ‘womaniser’ characteristic of the malandro. Again and again, he defies society’s norms.

Aside from the performance of gender, João also uses his body to perform notions of race. In her article, Lorraine Leu highlights in particular the valorisation of the exotic mulata woman as a symbol of beauty and national pride in Brazil at the time. She goes on to look at how João uses his black-skinned, male, “doubly negatively valorised” body in comparison, to perform roles of “whiteness, blackness and mulataness” in order to transgress social conventions and stereotypes regarding race.9 João performs the role of the mulata woman on stage during Laurita’s birthday celebrations. The audience is captivated by him, which is emphasised by the varying camera angles used. The scene depicts close-up shots of his eyes looking around animatedly, going in and out of focus; his body is almost worshipped by the camera,10 and it becomes clear that everyone else in the room is in awe of him, too. This is shown by Taboo’s facial expression – one of pride and admiration. Despite performing as a mulata woman however, his muscular chest is bare, Aïnouz having rejected a previous version of the costume, which featured a midriff-revealing top.11

Gustavo Subero criticises Aïnouz for his approach in portraying João’s cross-dressing, suggesting that there is a lack of transvestism on screen, due to “a kind of heteronormative filmic fear to depict the fluidity of sexuality beyond the biologically orientated binary man-woman.”12 He argues that Aïnouz underplays João’s femininity, choosing instead to masculinise his protagonist. Subero points out that in real life, dos Santos considered himself to be a bicha, that is, a feminine homosexual, who enjoyed being penetrated. This criticism is shared by Lisa Shaw who points out that “on screen, however, we only see a macho and virile active man who anally penetrates his lover.”13 These are valid criticisms, as Aïnouz does not depict João in the submissive bicha role in the film’s homosexual scenes. However, Aïnouz has commented on many occasions that his film is not intended to be an accurate biographical representation of João, but instead aims to explore his life and interpret it relatively. In my opinion, there is certainly no ‘filmic fear’ of portraying fluidity of sexuality in the film. The audience is already aware that João occupies a homosexual and cross-dressing body, but what Aïnouz is doing is drawing attention to João’s masculinity. In doing this, Aïnouz is simply emphasising a defining characteristic of João: his ability to transgress, and to a certain extent even reject, the conventional social norms thrust upon him. In his film, Aïnouz makes it clear that despite occupying what ‘should’ be his repressed body, João does not conform to the standard stereotype of the homosexual, nor does he conform to the standard stereotype of the exploited poor black man or that of the womanising malandro.14

In Madame Satã, João is extremely sharp in his transition from calm to fury, due to the inscriptions upon his body that hold him back in society. His emotional state jumps from one extreme to the other; there is no middle ground. This contrast is particularly visible in the scene in which he is backstage with Vitória dos Anjos. He is kneeling next to her in a position of both submission and jealous admiration, further stressed by a low-angle camera.15 He respects her; he looks at her estimably, touching her hair and her scarf. However, this respect is lost instantaneously when she begins to racially abuse him. The moment the word “nigger” escapes her mouth, João immediately loses his temper.16 He violently rips the headscarf that he previously caressed, puts her in a headlock, using his body to reassert his power, and forces her to look at their reflection in her dressing room mirror. From the corner camera angle, Aïnouz allows the audience to see their mirror image, their two faces side by side: a direct contrast of their skin tone and social status. They are physically close to one another, yet worlds apart. It seems to me that in this scene, by staring at their reflection, his eyes full of passionate anger, João is acknowledging this separation. I would even argue that the headscarf is a metaphor for João’s dream to perform as Vitória does. In caressing the scarf, he is lavishing in the luxury of being as close as he can get to this dream, without actually achieving it. Vitória’s verbal abuse hits him with the violent reminder that however much he tries, society will never look past the physical body he is trapped in, and in his fury, João forcefully tears the scarf. This scene acts as a moment of realisation for João that (as far as he knows) his dream is unattainable. This leads him to perform race and gender, as has been previously discussed, to the best of his ability in order to fight the obstacles he is faced with.

In conclusion, it is clear that João uses his body as a weapon to fight with both physically and symbolically. João’s body is the landscape of the film because it is the only thing João has, as well as the only thing the audience has access to. He does not let the audience in emotionally, which makes it hard to warm to him. Whatever is eating him up remains inside, and he remains a puzzle to the end of the film, a person who fascinates us but doesn’t share his vulnerability.17 Aïnouz’s Madame Satã focuses João’s body as a strategy of resistance to authority and social convention.18 Ironically, João’s triply marginalised body is all he has to fight marginalisation. When he is labelled a masculine malandro, he becomes a cross-dressing bicha. When he is labelled a feminine transvestite, he becomes a violent capoeira artist. There is no categorising João. He uses and morphs his body in whatever way he can in order to survive in his environment, which is why his body is the centrepiece of the film.

1 Madame Satã Press Kit (Canada, 2002) via
2 Lisa Shaw, ‘Afro-Brazilian Identity: Malandragem and Homosexuality in Madame Satã’ in Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Breaking into the Global Market, ed. Deborah Shaw (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) pp. 87-103 (p. 94)
3 Shaw, p. 8
4 Roger Erbert, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2006 (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2006) pp. 408
5 Lorraine Leu, ‘Performing Race and Gender in Brazil: Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Satã’ in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Indiana University Press, 2010) 73-95 (p. 75)
6 Vek Lewis, Crossing Sex and Gender in Latin America (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY: 2010) pp. 97
7 Madame Satã. Dir. Karim Aïnouz. Video Filmes. 2002.
8 Shaw, p. 94
9 Leu, p. 81
10 Gustavo Subero, Queer Masculinities in Latin American Cinema, Male bodies and Narrative Representations (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2013) pp. 152
11 Lisa Shaw ibid pp. 96
12 Gustavo Subero, ‘Fear of the Trannies: On Filmic Phobia of Transvestism in the New Latin American Cinema’, in Latin American Research Review 43.2 (2008) pp. 159-179 (p. 174)
13 Shaw, p. 95
14 James N Green, Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil (Chicago: 1999) pp. 90
15 Subero, ‘Fear of the Trannies: On Filmic Phobia of Transvestism in the New Latin American Cinema’, p. 73 16 Madame Satã. Dir. Karim Aïnouz. Video Filmes. 2002.

Works Cited

Aïnouz, Karim. Madame Satã, Video Filmes. 2002.

Erbert, Roger. Roger Eberts Movie Yearbook 2006 (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2006)

Green, James N. Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Leu, Lorraine. ‘Performing Race and Gender in Brazil: Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Satã’ in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Indiana University Press, 2010) pp. 73-95

Lewis, Vek. Crossing Sex and Gender in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Madame Satã Press Kit (Canada: 2002) via http://www.mongrelmedia.com/data/ftp/Madame%20Sata/MS%20press%20kit.pdf

Shaw, Lisa. ‘Afro-Brazilian Identity: Malandragem and Homosexuality in ‘Madame Satã’, in Deborah Shaw (ed.), Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Breaking into the Global Market (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) pp. 87-103

Subero, Gustavo. ‘Fear of the Trannies: The Filmic Phobia of Transvestism in the New Latin American Cinema’ in Latin American research review.., 43:2, (2008) 159-79.

—. Queer Masculinities in Latin American Cinema, Male bodies and Narrative Representations (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2013)

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