A real-life figure whose life became the stuff of Brazilian folklore, João Francisco Dos Santos, the black son of former slaves, lived a life that willfully ignored the contradictions it embodied. A skilled street fighter, thief, cross-dressing hustler, caring father, and flamboyant cabaret performer, Dos Santos stood out even in the Jean Genet-like world of Rio De Janeiro's colorful, mean Lapa district, where a night of passion could easily turn criminal, or even deadly. For his first feature, Karim Aïnouz uses a few select episodes from Dos Santos' life in the early '30s to gain entry to that world, but he has an easier time accomplishing that than shedding light on his protagonist. Though mesmerizingly played by Lázaro Ramos, Dos Santos remains a self-styled enigma, capable of unthinking brutality one moment and amazing tenderness the next, almost as if he'd come to embody the Lapa itself. Though Ramos plays Dos Santos in his early 30s, in many respects Aïnouz has crafted a coming-of-age story. Ramos begins the film staring from the sidelines as an aging cabaret performer paces through an Arabian Nights routine and defending himself against the violence around him. As the film progresses, he finds a way to participate in both. Aïnouz lets the story unfold without the moralizing that could easily have short-circuited the film's effectiveness. Living in what a policeman aptly describes as a "thieves' den," Ramos forms a makeshift family with an undiscriminating prostitute (Marcelia Cartaxo) and an effeminate Lapa denizen (Flacio Bauraqui) who dreams of being spirited away by a dream husband. Ramos is a good provider, even if providing means ripping off horny tourists from more respectable districts, but he also harbors dreams of escape, finding a focus for those fantasies reflected in the glamour of his obsessive devotion to Josephine Baker. His dreams have nowhere to go, however, and Aïnouz lets them settle like mist over the Lapa slum. Aïnouz's film may work better as a landscape than as a portrait, but he's chosen some fascinating terrain.