Maria Severa is a prostitute in the ghetto of Lisbon. Maria has aspirations to be a singer, but is forced into prostitution with her Brazilian immigrant friend, Jasmine, to support her rag-tag family, which includes her mother, the owner of a run-down tavern, and Carlos, an orphaned guitar player.
In the ghetto, Maria encounters Armando de Vimioso, a celebrated and aristocratic bullfighter and his brother, Fernando. After Maria sings for Armando, a passionate romance begins. Maria and Carlos' new style of music, christened "fado" by the public, creates a sensation in the country and the couple's romance, which shatters class structure, becomes a scandal. Armando's mother, Constanca, who is desperately trying to hide the financial ruin of her family estate, forbids the romance and enlists Father Manuel, a man sympathetic to both sides, to break up the relationship. Maria's determination and growth as an artist are charted as she and Armando and the world around them come to terms with her revolution in music.