Class Notes: Mademe Satã

For today’s class session, we viewed the film Madame Satã, a 2002 Brazilian film about the life of João Francisco dos Santos or Madame Satã and how he became the performer he was. This film presented the early life of dos Santos and the struggles he faced in 1930’s Rio de Janeiro. It does so by tracing the life of dos Santos and his associates before his ten-year stint in prison. In doing so, the film shows the difficulties faced by people who did not fit into clearly-defined groups. Madame Satã intersects well with the class themes and historical discussions we have been having, as it involved themes of the construction of race in Brazil and struggles with identity. The major characters in the film all exemplify the difficulty with fitting people into easily-definable categories and shows how people are affected by an attitude of heteronormativity.

The film was made in 2002, which affected the presentation of the characters and likely the reception it received. At the time, Brazilian states had either begun to or had already extended some additional protections to members of the LBTQIA+ community. However, there was not a clear national law at the time. Thus, the film came at a period of rapid change and growing understanding, which likely contributed to how it was perceived. Today, we live in an era where same-sex marriage is becoming more normal across the world, which can have an obscuring effect on some of the other discriminations LBTQIA+ people have, even while incidents of violence against LBTQIA+ people is on the rise. Thus, seeing the events of the film remind us that we are a long way from true equality and acceptance for members of this group. Furthermore, the identities that the characters in the film have are those that still face hate and discrimination today. Thus, this film serves as an important reminder in a modern context.

The film did have several scenes that reinforced the previously-mentioned notion. One scene was when the local police came to arrest dos Santos for “stealing” money from his former employer. We saw the full extent of the alleged crime, but as we watched, we knew that no amount of explaining by dos Santos would prevent him from being arrested, especially because we knew that police routinely raided areas known to contain more Black and LBTQIA+ individuals. Another memorable scene was when at the beginning dos Santos defended one of the women who was working at the bar from an overly-aggressive man. In the larger context of the film, this moment seems almost strange because the woman herself would become a target of dos Santos when she later called him derogatory terms. These two moments lead to the purpose and message of the film, namely humanizing these people on the fringes of society by showing a fuller picture of who they were.

The way the events were portrayed in the film led to our understanding of it. Stylistically, it involved filming techniques that emphasized the shape of the characters through frequent use of silhouettes and close-up shots. Additionally, the use of frequent cuts to correspond with action creates a sense of confusion and uncertainty that I am sure that some of the characters had been feeling. Alternatively, longer sequences force the viewer to pay attention to the events. For instance, when dos Santos is being sentenced, the camera focuses on him as his sentence is being read so the viewer has to listen and watch his reactions. Finally, the use of shadows and low light in the shots leads to a feeling of confusion and uncertainty and an inability to focus throughout the film.

Throughout the film, we see dos Santos struggle with his identity, struggling to define what it means to be a man despite his desire to engage in activities that are considered effeminate. Dos Santos exists in a particular area where he is surrounded by people who present themselves as one gender over the other, like Tabu, and people whose sexuality is clearly discernable like the young man dos Santos frequently encounters. Overall, the director seems to be showing how blurred the lines are when discussing race, gender, and sexuality in this specific time and place. Our inability to easily define the various intersections that dos Santos exemplifies contributes to that message, as we learn about each part of his identity and come to accept those as uniquely him.

This film connects well to some of the readings we have had so far given its exploration of the historic construction of race, gender, and sexuality. For instance, it reminds me of the Weinstein piece, as they both deal with the express construction of an identity group through the creation of societal norms. Interestingly, I also was reminded of the Cannibalist Manifesto, as it too involved an attempt to expressly define an identity for the Brazilian people. So, while the group was larger, working to define an identity is a theme common to both works. Finally, the film brought to mind Davila’s work about race, class, and education in the “Estado Novo.” Just like the other works, this piece deals with intersectionality and how each individual carves out their unique space and identity based on those intersections.


Further Reading:
Performing Race and Gender in Brazil: Karim Ainouz’s Madam Satã (2002)
Lorraine Leu

“Madame Satã: Unapologetically Queer
Jeremy Lehnen

Madame Satã (Dos Santos, João Francisco)
James N. Green