Brazilian auteur Gabriel Mascaro locates his latest, Divine Love, in an ill-defined zone between dystopian fiction and illuminated manuscript. Taking place in a 2027 Brazil where Christianity and the state have coalesced, the film explores what happens when one’s status in society depends on one’s ability to start and grow a family. Yet explores is not the right word. It straightforwardly provides a warning about the society that both bureaucratizes and moralizes procreation in service to the will of a Christian God. A parable of sorts, its moral is clear: when religion is forced into the strictures of administrative procedure, it loses its soul.

However, creating a compelling cine-parable is no easy task. If simplicity is supposed to be a parable’s key characteristic, how does a parable in movie form include characters complex enough to feel real? If it is supposed to illustrate a clear lesson, how can it give an impression of true-to-life messiness?

One clear answer lies in the performance of the actors, none stronger than Dira Paes as Joana, our devout bureaucrat protagonist. Joana has not achieved pregnancy thanks to her husband’s infertility issues, and the fact that prayer and good works have not led to the conception of a child frustrates her to no end. Paes is all restraint as she channels Joana’s frustration into insistent smiles and an infuriatingly patient brand of calmness. She is, in other words, a believably naive yet somewhat menacing personification of a “thank you for calling” voice message on the other end of a cry for help.

She only removes this papier-mâché mask of polite correctness during her frequent visits to a drive-thru church, where a pastor (Emílio de Mello, also brilliant) pacifies her qualms about God’s rewards by insisting that He and the angels are celebrating her accomplishments—which largely consist of trying to convince everyone who wants a divorce to work hard to stay together instead—in heaven. “Glory!” the rent-a-rector repeatedly proclaims, replicating Joana’s all-smiles approach but with the God endorsement that comes along with his pastor title. However, when a key complication arises at the turning point between the second and third acts, his veneer crumbles in a heap of fear and uncertainty.

The movie also succeeds in providing an impression of verisimilitude within its fabular framework by highlighting its closeness to Brazilian sociopolitical realities, hence its very-near-future setting. While the screenplay was conceived before the election of Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, who as part of his evangelical-pandering political campaign was baptized in the Jordan River, it is clearly in touch with the religious and cultural trends that eventually took Brazil down the path of family-first fascism. In the world of the film, every public place requires walking through identity detectors that declare not only a person’s name but also, humiliatingly, their marital and pregnancy status. And in its most biting criticism, Divine Love reveals the existence of a center for “bitter fruits” (an echo of Bolsonaro’s “scum of the earth” label for immigrants from the Middle East), those children born without a two-parent, state-recognized household and thus taken into state custody. Joana and husband Danilo (Julio Machado) pay a visit to the center not to look into adoption, as it initially seems, but to collect a few “tears of the abandoned” for extra blessings instead.

This bizarre practice pales in comparison to the rituals performed by the Divine Love denomination where Danilo and Joana have been members for many years. Focused solely on couples and childbirth, group gatherings involve Bible readings, prayers, trust falls soundtracked by the Chariots of Fire theme, team baptisms and—the kicker—sex rituals where couples switch partners right up to the point of male orgasm, at which point the male partners transition back to their spouse for the stated purpose of impregnation. The activities take place within the equivalent to the album art for Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming or, when outdoors, a Kanye West-led Sunday Service. This makes for an entrancingly stylized experience that blurs the boundary between religious ambience and is-this-really-happening acid trip.

While this aesthetic rings true to recent trends in evangelicalism (think rave-y worship services and a style of transcendence that’s all closed eyes, raised arms and whispered “amens”), it seems quite a leap to predict a widespread tendency towards swinging sex cults from within the church. Moreover, there’s not much thematic or narrative justification for Divine Love’s presence, and the group totally disappears in the meandering final act. In other words, the movie’s most spectacular moments needlessly counteract its parable tendencies in favor of memorable but slight nonsense.

The core of Divine Love is a brilliantly acted critique of conservative, exclusionary politics, while the rest of its trappings are all horny titillation and neon light. These two elements are divorced from one another, which prevents the film from raising a host of fascinating questions about the evangelical church’s relationship to pop culture and eroticism. Its split identity ultimately means its finer points are swallowed up in sounds of moaning and a pink-and-purple glow.

The core of the film is a brilliantly acted critique of conservative, exclusionary politics, while the rest of its trappings are all horny titillation and neon light.
55 %
Ambient Parable
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