There is a line spoken twice by actor/subject João Carlos Castanha in the Davi Pretto’s dazzling character study, “Castanha,” about “an actor without his make up…counts for nothing as soon as he stops representing something else.” It’s a canny metaphor for the film and the title character, a Brazilian gay man who lives with his mother (Celina Castanha), and works as an actor and drag emcee as local gay clubs. Castanha seems to only feel alive when he is performing.

The film opens with an arresting image of the title character, naked and bloody, walking gingerly down an empty street. While it could very likely be a scene from a horror film shoot that Castanha might appear in as an actor, Pretto (via an email exchange with producer Sandro Fiorin) insisted it was not, “It was a dream [Pretto] had, while writing the script, after many sittings with Castanha himself. It represents [the] entire film in one single shot: death, AIDS, solitude, fear, the process of giving yourself away, naked (of everything) from an actor person to the director.”

This curious introduction helps draw viewers into Castanha’s world, which is intriguing when he is performing, and no less so when he is not.

In his daily life, Castanha spends time with elderly mother, who fusses about her drug-addicted grandson, Marcelo. Nightly, Castanha goes off to a club to don drag and become Maria Helena Castanha, the hostess with “beauty, sensuality, malice and perfume.” It is pleasurable to see Castanha in his element, lipsynching, generating laughs dishing about the club’s beefy bare-assed dancers, and cracking wise about penis size. In another performance, on stage in a theater, he is heartbreaking talking about how long it has been since he has held someone’s hand, been hugged, kissed, or asked to dance. It is not too great a leap to think that the actor speaks from experience, even though he has an aborted romantic tryst in “Castanha.”

Off stage, Castanha is no less candid. He admits he is crazy about cinema and as a spectator he used to see the same film (Alan Parker’s “Bugsy Malone”) five times in a row. While this passion likely fueled his desire to become an actor, he is relegated to small roles on camera, and supporting parts on stage. The actor’s quiet despair is palpable, it is what makes him both sympathetic and compelling.

What is fascinating here is seeing Castanha so “on” while performing, but so contemplative when he is “off.” Chats with his mother are tender—as when she confesses to worrying about her son, waiting up each night for him to return home. Likewise, when Castanha discusses his ex, who has died (from AIDS; this is implied, but never stated), it is a poignant moment, underscoring Castanha’s own aging and HIV+ status.

Reality and fiction intertwine and sometimes blur as when Castanha has a discussion with his “phantom” ex, or when Pretto juxtaposes Celina watching a protest in Sao Paulo on TV with a military-clad performer in one of the gay clubs. Things get all too real in a subplot involving Castanha arranging to have Marcelo beaten up so as not to steal or beg for money for drugs.

“Castanha” can at times be obtuse or oblique—e.g, the unexplained opening sequence—but such little mysteries are part of the film’s charm. This is not a reality TV showcase of some vapid performer; it is a revealing and probing examination into how a gay man ekes out a life under difficult conditions.

“Castanha” plays at the “Art of the Real” series Saturday, April 19 at 9:00 pm at the Francesca Beale Theater (FBT) with an encore presentation Wednesday, April 23 at 5:00 pm also at the FBT. Filmmaker Davi Pretto will be doing a Q&A at the  April 19 show.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and a contributor to Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News and other queer alternative weeklies.