QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM BERLIN
First think about the unruly, sadistic and gratuitously murderous thugs of City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002).Then think of the fierce black gay man/drag queen of Madame Sata (Karim Ainouz, same year). Now rewind 30 years and throw in a twist of John Waters’s camp humour and clumsy violence. The outcome is The Devil Queen, an often overlooked dirty gem of Brazilian cinema, that has now staged a comeback. The Queen has righteously decided to reclaim her crown five decades later.
Antonio Carlos da Fontoura’s 1973 classic is an absurdist comedy spiced with the dirtiest language and some of the best dialogues in the history of Brazilian cinema. The expressions that the Queen and her subjects utilise are authentic of the gay community that inhabited the underworld of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. The writers Fontoura and Plinio Marcos did a lot of research for their script. Sadly a lot of that gets lost in translation, but there’s still plenty to appreciate even if you are not Brazilian. Get ready for plenty of sharp-tongued and vicious bitching. And also for the gayest torture scene you will see in your life. One that would leave Babs Johnson green with envy (incidentally, John Waters made Pink Flamingoes just a year earlier).
The Devil Queen (Milton Goncalves) is a drug lord living and working in the suburbs of Rio. She is black, she is blunt and she is beautiful. Our protagonist has a vast network of affiliates vouching for the security on her turf. But someone is betraying her, and a rival gang led by super-straight and unscrupulous Catitu (Nelson Xavier) are plotting to overthrow the monarch. He has the support of the young and exceedingly handsome Bereco (Stepan Nercessian), who is in a relationship with the capricious and vain Isa (Odete lara). She suspects that her hubby is unfaithful, perhaps even a “faggot”. But she’s in love, and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do in order to please and to protect her man. Most gangsters (including Bereco) frequent the local brothel: the Loved Woman’s Milk. Viewers are left to guess the nature of the milk and also the type of interaction in which clients engage once inside.
Soon total war breaks out: gay war lord versus macho gangsters versus prostitutes versus anyone who crosses their path. Our Queen finds loyal support in a group of drag queens and “faggots” of all shapes and colours. While Milton Goncalves himself wasn’t gay, the Queen’s subjects are played by real gay people from the underground: their costumes, their swagger and their loud screaming are authentic of their deeply marginalised community. The Devil Queen herself is callous and barbarous, always prepared to slash open the face of her enemies and sometimes even of her own allies. She was inspired by real-life crossdressing gangster João Francisco dos Santos (the subject of Ainouz’s Madame Sata), who terrorised the streets of Rio during the 1930s.
The violence depicted in The Devil Queen isn’t just camp, hilarious and absurd. It is also emblematic of the military dictatorship that had ruled Brazil since 1964. The regime was at its most oppressive and brutal at the time the film was made. Their tactics included widespread and murder. The frenzied queers are a proxy for the deranged military officers that ruled the country back then.
The Devil Queen has just celebrated its 50th anniversary with a crisp 4k restoration in Berlin. The director attended the event and took part in a Q&A after the film.