The first word that comes to mind when thinking about the thematically complex yet always accessible fiction films from Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro is “sensual.” His previous two features, August Winds (2014) and Neon Bull (2015), luxuriated in flesh-on-flesh couplings in ways that suggested the love scene is still far from a tired old cinematic trope — as long as you manage to suggest that the physical act comes from a place of desire that feels at once overwhelming and the most natural thing in the world.
Fast forward to 2019, or rather 2027, the year Mascaro’s new and third feature, Divine Love (Divino amor), is set. In the eight years since today, Brazil has become a fully Evangelical nation in all but name, as if the newly elected, right-wing and “pro-family” president, Jair Messias Bolsonaro — note that middle name! — had had his way with the nation for the two four-year mandates he could theoretically be elected for. There’s again plenty of sex on display, but what’s fascinating is that in this neon-colored, semi-futuristic Brazil, coitus has become perverted and non-natural; it may be sensual to watch, but its goals are anything but sexy. What’s more, it might not even be really necessary.
Again gorgeously shot and produced, impressively acted and with a lot of fascinating things on its mind, this is yet further proof that the 35-year-old Mascaro is one of the most audacious and gifted filmmakers of his generation. After a world premiere at Sundance, this very of-the-moment parable will have its European premiere in the Panorama strand of the Berlinale.
Joana (local star Dira Paes) is a woman hitting early middle age who still longs for a baby. But despite a lot of lovemaking with Danilo (Julio Machado), her other half, they still haven’t managed to conceive. Danilo even regularly hangs himself upside down in front of an infrared lamp naked using a special fertility contraption. But they haven’t had any luck so far, which makes Joana wonder why God is ignoring her prayers.
Joana works for the state as a registry office clerk and as such comes into contact with a lot of people who want to divorce. She takes it upon herself, as a good Christian woman, to try and mend the couples instead of registering the end of their sacred union. She does this by suggesting they come and visit Divine Love, a cultish self-help group that Joana and Danilo are involved with and that has helped them in the past work through their own issues.
(Spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) During the Divine Love sessions, couples in a rut do group exercises that also include sex with other partners before switching back, at the last minute, to their own to make them feel something for each other again and thus fulfill God’s destiny for them as a married couple. (Presumably, it doesn’t count as infidelity in God’s eyes if you still orgasm with your own partner.)
Though the overall tone of the film is quite serious, Mascaro definitely has some fun with this futuristic version of his native country, which has large synth-for-Jesus-type concerts and includes drive-through churches. At one of these places of worship, Joana, with her window rolled down, complains to the pastor (Emilio de Melo) about the fact she can’t get pregnant herself despite helping to fulfill God’s plan by helping other Christian couples find each other again. In 2027, detectors at the entrance of buildings are also able to read people’s DNA to identify them and show whether they are pregnant and whether the fetus has already been registered (which indirectly suggests abortion is a thing of the past). These detectors and the government’s DNA database will play a role in the film’s second half, when a miracle of sorts happens that throws everyone, very much including Joana, for a loop.
As in his previous fiction narratives, Mascaro explores topics without immediately suggesting how audiences should feel about them. It would have been very easy to make a preachy anti-religious pamphlet out of Divine Love but instead, the film — at least initially — suggests that the rituals and beliefs that come with organized religion can be soothing and help structure people’s lives, which explains their appeal for millions in Brazil and elsewhere. “Faith is certainty and doesn’t require further proof,” someone says here and the writer-director, who wrote the screenplay with three others, including his regular producer, Rachel Ellis, at first insists on the paradox of God’s silence — the absence of proof, if you will — which leads to different questions and interpretations from pastors and believers alike. But when some kind of evidence finally does arrive, it wreaks havoc in ways both expected and unexpected, exposing some of the contradictions inherent in religion that suggest theory and practice are two very different beasts.
Paes, who debuted as a 15-year-old in John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest, is perfectly cast as a woman whose steadfast beliefs guide her behavior and whose instinct to do good has been blindly hijacked by her religion. Paes’ performance is so layered it is possible for the audience to consider simultaneously how Joana sees herself and why she acts the way she does and also see her from the outside, as a woman who uses religion as a crutch in a world of unfulfilled desires, uncertainty and chaos. This constant and beguiling duality is a major plus for a story without a traditional villain or exterior obstacles other than the complexities of the belief systems of a society. (One of the most fascinating things about Divine Love is that it never has to spell out how religion, politics and governance are intertwined — they just are.)
Though the pic’s final maxim, pronounced by a disembodied voiceover that occasionally provides context or comments on the action, doesn’t quite hold up upon closer inspection, Mascaro does provide a lot of fascinating food for thought about the increasingly worrying direction in which Brazilian society is headed. This is, finally, an intelligent and elegant cri de coeur about what’s really at stake in a country where the rights, sexual or otherwise, of everyone who isn’t a married heterosexual trying to procreate are in danger, and where the majority seems oblivious to what their steadfast beliefs are doing — not only to those around them but also to themselves. Any kind of compassion that has ulterior motives, Mascaro suggests, isn’t compassion at all, but a form of tender tyranny.
In terms of its look, Divine Love, which is set in a teeming metropolis, is very different from Mascaro’s previous films, which were set in the countryside. Appropriately, blue and pink, colors traditionally associated with babies, dominate the palette of this tale of a wished-for motherhood. The hues appear most often as filtered light in hazy interiors, imparting an almost dream-like air. The woozy synth score complements this near-futuristic vibe perfectly, leaving it open to interpretation whether we are watching a utopian or a dystopian version of Brazil. It’s all about what you believe.
Production companies: Desvia, Malbicho Cine, Snowglobe, Jirafa, Bord Cadre Films, Mer Films, Film i Vast, Globo Filmes, Canal Brasil
Cast: Dira Paes, Julio Machado, Emilio de Melo, Teca Pereira, Calum Rio, Mariana Nunes, Thalita Carauta
Director: Gabriel Mascaro
Screenwriters: Gabriel Mascaro, Rachel Ellis, Lucas Paraizo, Esdras Bezerra
Producer: Rachel Daisy Ellis
Director of photography: Diego Garcia
Production designer: Thales Junqueira
Costume designer: Rita Azevedo
Editors: Livia Serpa, Eduardo Serrano, Fernando Epstein, George Cragg
Music: Juan Campodonico, Santiago Marrero, Otavio Santos
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition) / Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Memento Films