Positive representation dominates the current debate around queer audiovisual media. But make no mistake, A Rainha Diaba (Antonio Carlos de Fontoura, 1974) is nothing of the sort. Lauded as the first film to have a Black queer character in Brazilian cinema, it strongly empowers marginalised characters without painting them in bright colours (which are present only when one considers the film’s camp design and cinematography). A Rainha Diaba is an important film that, almost 50 years after its release in May 1974, has influenced many other Brazilian films on crime and LGBTQ characters – yet it retains an originality and effect all its own.

Diaba as an icon

Brazil suffered a military coup in 1964 which removed the socialist government of elected president João Goulart. Aligned with the US and firmly against socialism, the military dictatorship actually continued the nationalist agenda of the previous government. As part of this, the dictatorship injected a lot of money into the film industry from the late 1960s, creating a paradox for many of the leading figures in Brazilian art. Although they were strongly against the dictatorship, many producers and directors found an unexpected ally of sorts in the government. While the censorship was heavy and sometimes axed a film or screenplay, it was important to the government that the film industry evolved – not only as a financial investment (and it was a time of major blockbusters in Brazil), but also in the prestige of winning awards at major film festivals. 

In the wake of the patriotism generated by the 1970 football World Cup and the official campaign, “Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o” (“Brazil, love it or leave it”), military leaders commissioned several films to celebrate 150 years of independence in 1972. These films were meant to celebrate important and heroic figures from Brazilian history. While most of those films are now forgotten, those made in its wake as a counter-point proved to have a lasting impact. It is in this spirit that A Rainha Diaba was made. 

The main character’s name, Diaba – a feminine name for “Devil” – sets the tone for the transgressive role of this crime leader in the Rio de Janeiro underworld. While very original, the character also takes inspiration from icons of the city’s nightlife – specially criminals such as the serial killer Febrônio Índio do Brasil and Madame Satã, a cabaret artist inspired by Cecil B. DeMille’s camp classic Madam Satan (1930) and would later be the basis of Karim Aïnouz’s 2002 film Madame Satã.1 Diaba marks the first time a Black and overtly queer character led a major Brazilian film.2 Not only that, but the film points out her leadership and command over the “manly men” that surround her, particularly in one scene where they fail to plot a coup. Milton Gonçalves, who gives a stellar performance as Diaba, was already a household name in television soap operas. 

Plínio Marcos, a celebrated playwright, co-wrote the screenplay with Antonio Carlos Fontoura. In his study of Marcos’s career, Rafael de Luna Freire found that no cuts were imposed on A Rainha Diaba by the censors.3 Although viewed today as innovative and progressive, one can see why the government at the time would have no issues with this film: it tackles issues such as criminality, homosexuality, and the student movement in a way that is far from inspiring. There is no redemption for the characters; they are neither wanted nor needed. Some have criticised the film’s ending for being moralistic and an act of self-censorship, as not only Diaba dies but all her nemeses. In the last shot, as Diaba’s destiny unfolds, we see a picture of Queen Elizabeth II’s official 1959 portrait, as if she was a spectator in the outcome of her royal colleague. While there are no positive roles found here, Diaba’s command over her peers and unashamed personality is perhaps why we still find the film so charming today.

In A Rainha Diaba, Brazilian history is not told from the official point of view, but from that of the common people. One could argue that it is also an attempt to find a queer history buried in the depths of heteronormativity. The film’s climax is a party in which Diaba receives her friends. The party is not only visually splendorous, but an allegory of queer affection – when the house is closed for clients and only Diaba’s guests are allowed in, it seems a rare moment wherein a queer world is the norm and queer affection is what is most desired. 

Licia Cardozo Dalla explores how signs of American exploitation (or influence) can be found throughout the film.4 This is evident in the soundtrack, where many American songs from the 1960s and ‘70s are heard, and some of the dialogue. Logos from international companies appear in bright neon, and many shots and scenes are reminiscences of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s. (However, instead of a femme fatale, what brings our protagonist down is a garçon fatal.) The exuberant use of colours are reminiscent of both the American underground of the 1960s and the films of Jacques Demy. The bright green wig worn by Odete Lara, playing the cabaret singer, is strikingly similar to that of The Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948), also a queer allegory of its own. In Losey’s film, a boy wakes up one day to find that his hair has mysteriously turned green and, after some excitement from the community, his strangeness – or queerness – is condemned by his friends and peers.

Cardozo Dalla also defends the film as a prime example of Brazilian camp. The use of colour was still a relatively new standard in Brazilian cinema, and the film exploded with them. The opening credits are still among the best in Brazilian cinema, and the cinematography stands out, both with its outstanding indoor scenes and the few amazing outdoor takes. José Medeiros was already at the time a celebrated director of photography, having shot Roberto Carlos’s celebrated trilogy (Roberto Carlos Em Ritmo de Aventura [1968], Roberto Carlos e o Diamante Cor-de-Rosa [1970], Roberto Carlos a 300 Quilômetros por Hora [1971]) and Faustão (1971), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV that was the last foray of celebrated documentarist Eduardo Coutinho into fiction film.

A Rainha Diaba opens its striking soundtrack with “India”, a popular Paraguayan song originally written by José Asuncion Flores in 1924. The Brazilian version had long been considered cheesy – or camp? – until Gal Costa, a major Brazilian popular musician from the 1960s and ‘70s, released a version in 1973, causing controversies due to nude images on the cover. The version played in the film is from a male singer – no credits on screen identify the version – but it was a song that had considerable airplay at the time. 

Before A Rainha Diaba, Antonio Carlos Fontoura had already directed a number of documentaries on luminaries from the Brazilian music and art world. His feature film debut, Copacabana me engana (Copacabana Fools Me, 1968) is one of the best Brazilian films to showcase teenage angst in the 1960s middle class. Although not explicitly queer, its sensual portrayal of the male body on screen resembled the erotic photographs of young men on the beach in Rio de Janeiro taken by philosopher and art critic Alair Gomes in the 1960s and ‘70s. As part of the preparation for A Rainha Diaba, Fontoura visited celebrated queer Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica in New York, learning more about queer culture.

A note on film preservation

The copy shown is a pristine new 4K digital file, but this is not a restoration. That is actually a very positive thing – it means the original film has not gone through any major interference. What we are watching now is very similar to the look and sound of the film in 1974. Therefore, we should salute the archives and archivists who took great care of those cans of film prints for almost 50 years. All this work led to a masterpiece of Brazilian cinema finally finding a successful international career.

A Rainha Diaba (1974 Brazil 110 mins)

Prod Co: Filmes De Lírio/Lanterna Magica/R.F. Farias/Ventania Filmes Prod: Antonio Carlos da Fontoura, Roberto Farias Dir: Antonio Carlos da Fontoura Scr: Antonio Carlos da Fontoura, Plínio Marcos Phot: José Medeiros Ed: Rafael Justo Valverde Mus: Guilherme Magalhães Vaz 

Cast: Milton Gonçalves, Odete Lara, Stepan Nercessian, Nelson Xavier, Yara Cortes, Wilson Grey, Edgar Gurgel Aranha, Lutero Luiz, Geraldo Sobreira, Kim Negro


  1. Chico Lacerda, “Cinema gay brasileiro: políticas de representação e além” (PhD Thesis, Federal University of Pernambuco, 2015).
  2. Luiz Rangel dos Reis Junior, A Rainha Diaba e a Bixa Espectadora (Encontro dos Programas de Pós-Graduação em Comunicação Social de Minas Gerais, Mariana: Federal University of Ouro Preto, 2019).
  3. Rafael de Luna Freire, Navalha na tela: Plínio Marcos e o cinema brasileiro (Rio de Janeiro: Tela Brasilis, 2008).
  4. Licia Cardozo Dalla, “Pra não dizer que não falei das flores de plástico: Um busca pelo camp no cinema brasileiro durante a ditadura militar” (Undergraduate thesis, Federal Fluminese University, 2023).

About The Author

Mateus Nagime is a curator, researcher, and writer on film and sports, currently working for CREME and Olimpíada Todo Dia, also serving as newsletter editor for the International Olympic Academy Past Association (IOAPA). He was a member of the board of the Brazilian Association of Audiovisual Archivists (ABPA) from 2013-18, has organised several film festivals, especially related to queer cinema, and also covered the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

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