Sundance: Gabriel Mascaro follows up his critical favorite “Neon Bull” with a very different character study.
Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro excels at digging inside distinctive worlds and transforming them into poetry. His first two narrative features, “Neon Bull” and “August Wind” are lyrically transcendent works that blur the lines between reality and fiction. That makes the premise of his latest effort a welcome surprise: While “Neon Bull” depicted nomadic rodeo performers and “August Winds” reveled in the romance of a remote fishing village, “Divine Love” is an allegorical sci-fi story set in the near future.
Nevertheless, Mascaro and cinematographer Diego García have crafted a lush, intricate sociopolitical commentary that builds on the filmmaker’s inquisitive approach even as it sometimes overextends its ambition.
The movie takes its time developing its setup. At its center is Joana (Dira Paes), a devout Evangelical woman who works in Brazil’s notary office in 2027. Keen on talking would-be divorced couples into salvaging their crumbling marriages, she often coaxes them into her cultish side-project: so-called “Divine Love” therapy sessions, in which couples swap partners in erotically-charged encounters, then trade back, in an effort to reignite their chemistry. Joana and her husband Danilo (Julia Machado) bring so much warmth and affection to their polygamous hobby that an early explicit foursome radiates with the spiritual convictions driving them. (“True love never cheats,” the Divine Love mantra reads. “True love shares.”)
Much like the explicit sex scene at the end of “Neon Bull,” Mascaro transforms his nude performers in the throes of passion into abstract figures of pure sensual beauty.
But this vivid backdrop belies a more pedestrian challenge: Joana wants a child, and no matter what the couple does, she can’t seem to get pregnant. Her expectation of a promising future and the roadblock that keeps her from getting there yields a fascinating crisis of faith, albeit one that grounds the movie in more familiar storytelling terrain. Over the course of two hours, Joana struggles with elaborating on her concerns, while facing a series of new hardships that throw her religious commitments into question. This scenario maintains its appeal thanks to the energetic Machado’s dynamic screen presence, but overstays its welcome as Joana contends with her Job-like pileup of concerns as they percolate with little payoff.
Nevertheless, “Divine Love” delivers the same remarkable world-building that made Mascaro’s previous features such intoxicating experiences. Cinematographer García is such a wizard of color and light — his other credits include Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fantastical “Cemetery of Splendour” — it’s a wonder he hasn’t already shot a “Star Wars” movie.
From the drive-through confessional booth where a conflicted Joana returns throughout the movie, to the bustling bureaucratic processes of the notary office, and the shadowy snippets of intimacy that distinguish the sex scenes, this far-reaching movie is an imaginative visual feast in nearly every frame. Mascaro’s vision of Brazil is only a few shades shy of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” but trades that classic’s delicious irony for romanticism; Mascaro (who shares writing credit with Rachel Daisy Ellis, Esdras Bezerra, and Lucas Paraizo) constructs the narrative from the perspective of someone who actually believes in the country’s conservative ideals even when they don’t work out in her favor.
The movie stumbles whenever it attempts to reconcile these factors with the flimsy plot, including a predictable third-act twist pushed along by an intrusive voiceover that lacks the emotional substance demanded by the extensive buildup. Paes, the first major actress at the center of Mascaro’s work, gives a formidable performance as a woman whose world collapses around her. But “Divine Love” feels too self-serious and enamored of its exuberant riff on the country’s real-life religious and political obsessions to make its character anything more than a conduit to grander thematic concerns.
Fortunately, that’s often enough to make the investment worthwhile: Joana’s plight amounts to a haunting melodrama elevated to near-anthropological heights by filmmaking that relishes every opportunity to build out her environment. No matter how much Mascaro reaches into the future, “Divine Love” retains an immediacy steeped in questions about the nature of faith, physical attraction, and the factors that can transform the personal into the political.
Joana’s sincere desires are at odds with her willingness to embrace institutional control. Having established the paradox of her existence early on, “Divine Love” merely has to watch her struggle through her journey to allow its thematic concerns to deepen. How can a country dominated by true believers lead to so much frustration with the system? As speculative sci-fi, “Divine Love” leaves much to be desired; as a sociological statement on the contradictions of contemporary Brazil, it’s a profound cinematic question about the nature of the country’s conflicted soul.
“Divine Love” premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.