Out Takes 2004 | Lumiere Feature


Image: Madame Sata

Lumière found space back in Issue #3 to briefly cover New Zealand's annual Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and were lucky enough to preview two new features from their always-eclectic programme. Visit www.outtakes.org.nz for more information.

Madame Satã (2002)
Karim Aïnouz | Brazil/France | 109 min | Featuring: Lázaro Ramos, Marcelia Cartaxo, Flavio Bauraqui, Fellipe Marques.

The Life and Times of Luchino Visconti (2002)
Adad Low | UK | 106 min | Featuring: Luchino Visconti, Helmut Berger, Franco Zefferelli, Alain Delon, Charlotte Rampling.

IN THE PREPOSTEROUSLY titled To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Wesley Snipes is his usual ripped, muscular self, except that he's also wearing a frock. In what is a wholesome, generally condescending piece of crap, the film and Snipes' alter-ego Noxeema don't as much satirise or even parody the "queen", but drag it way under anything remotely representational. So determined not to alienate or scar its PG-13 demographic for life, Wong Foo even carries an urgent ratings warning: contains subject matter involving men living in drag.

Madame Satã may not be for 13 year olds, but it is educational in a way. Children should overt their gaze from any sex and violence, but in between, the film has something loosely metaphorical to say about adolescence, being yourself, coming-of-age – that sort of Hallmark-embossed thing. What is told isn't the story of a famous drag queen perse, but the back-story blossoming of João Francisco (aka the title of this film) and all that aggressive, Capoeira-busting macho angst, not too dissimilar from your renegade alpha teenage male. Dressed in a dense Brazilian aesthetic – with saturated colours that drip off the screen like a Jackson Pollock – João's textured South American skin happens to be the darkest thing in a film that is strangely, anything but.

So despite being soaked in all that grit and urban-squalor, Madame Satã is a liberating, even uplifting experience in the most non-City of God ways. As a narrative, it functions strictly as an A-to-B metamorphosis (from street drifter to drag queen extraordinaire); biographically, there's much more happening, Francisco being the ultimate antithesis to Carson and his beloved couture, yet staunchly homosexual at the same time. This is where the Wesley Snipes performance failed, that always-bet-on-black persona not really a reflection of the man behind the queen, but the actor beneath a costume, clinging desperately to the action hero typecast in the hope that he'll still have a career and if lucky, maybe get to star in a hit vampire-slaying movie or two.

Lázaro Ramos, the actor chosen to play the Francisco character, is ten times more convincing, able to subvert any testosterone-fueled antagonism – so easily assumed in movie-circles as the womanizer, hunter-gatherer or violent abuser archetype – into something far less extroverted. João isn't obliged to break out sporadically into a glam rock Hedwig-number so as to proclaim his sexuality or second coming; nor does he require the feminine sways and gestures of his counterpart Taboo – the transvestite roommate-slash-maternal substitute who suffers badly from a Victor Vargas-complex (the problem is João and Taboo look the same). Completing the triptych is Laurita, the girlfriend who's not really, who prostitutes by day and who cares (barely) for her child by night. The trio form that classic Band of Outsiders clique, the kind where one always breaks away from the rest. Who else but João Francisco, graduating from lip-syncing burlesque numbers to world famous carnival headliner. He would live until 76.

RECREATING THOSE FORMATIVE years before Madame became Satã, the film does cut short of anything resembling an actual career in drag, perhaps too abruptly in a what-happens-next kind of way. This isn't a concern when viewing the more generous The Life and Times of Count Luchino Visconti: two chunky non-fictional hours of opulence, aristocracy and Helmet Berger. Visconti, unusually a hard case Italian neorealist who lived the most privileged and exclusive of upbringings, might be described as a sort of filmmaking Caligula – not quite to the point of incest and record-breaking orgies, but he was gay (as the ancient Roman stereotype goes), dictatorial (apparently) and by all accounts, extremely decadent.

How unfitting then that a documentary about a queer Fitzcarraldo-type would remain so milk-and-sugar straight. Produced by the BBC – with their scheduled cups of tea and nondescript news anchorage – the documentary is impossibly British (if there is such a thing). Smothered heavily in archival footage, slow pans across family albums, establishing shots of this place and that – all staple devices of historical documentation, mind you – Life and Times is robust in coverage but also patriarchal in demeanour, drawn out from some desire to grant this pseudo-Royal the kind of posthumous This is Your Life fit for a king. Visconti was in fact the type that didn't sit around his castle all day, but in between the opera and high-society schmoozing, dabbled in soldiering, Marxism, and training a winning horse to the Italian equivalent of the Melbourne Cup.

Already an overachiever, he made movies too, the documentary spending much of its duration juxtaposing the Visconti oeuvre with the Visconti lifestyle; the elaborate dinner parties, operatic indulgence and rumoured debauchery (including Helmet Berger, Franco Zefferelli, maybe Alain Delon too) all part of that life-imitates-art-imitates-life dialectic. Bypassing early downtrodden neorealist fare like La Terra trema (1947) or the later, better Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Visconti was more naturally a romanticist, that instinctive merger of private life into public exhibition perhaps represented best in Senso (1954), The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971) combined.

2 hours isn't really enough time spent with this strangely elusive, larger-than-life figure, but judging by how greater informed I feel since, I think Visconti would have approved.

–Tim Wong

Originally published in: Lumière 3, May-June 2004, ISSN 1176-4082

© Tim Wong / Lumière 2004

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