Renowned Mexican helmer Arturo Ripstein’s latest offering is his most ambitious to date. Loosely based on true events that happened in Mexico during the ’70s, “Divine” is a quirky, fascinating description of a loony religious cult, anticipating with fervor the end of the world. Pic’s offbeat sense of humor and visual splendor will make it a must-see on the fest circuit, where Ripstein’s reputation has asserted itself in the last years. And by capturing the crazed, self-destructive logic of cults, it is a film very much in tune with the end of the millennium.
Although set in present time, “Divine” has an anachronistic feel to it, a sense of medieval lunacy that ideally sets the tone for the story of the New Jerusalem, a cult led by prophetess Mama Dorita (film legend Katy Jurado) and Papa Basilio (crusty veteran Francisco Rabal). The congregation — including new recruits Nelida (Carolina Papaleo), a prostitute, and streetwise teen-ager Tomasa (newcomer Edwarda Gurrola) — is a motley crew of zealots, misfits and losers who have adopted their leaders’ weird credo. This includes the seedy imitation of Hollywood biblical epics’ garments and pageantry — Basilio is an ardent film buff (“Movies are like God,” he says, “they create worlds”).
On her death bed, Dorita chooses Tomasa to inherit her mantle and give birth to the new Messiah, because the young one’s handling of a videogame makes her believe it’s a message from God. Soon, the teen-ager goes power-mad and imposes a new set of rules for the cult: Taking the role of the Whore of Babylon, she forces all male members to have sex with her, even while she manages to save her “virginity” for one special purpose.
On her seventh Ripstein collaboration, scriptwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego has divided the wicked narration into short chapters (or “mysteries”). Echoing Ripstein’s “Woman of the Port,” this device allows for different but corresponding points of view on the same events that intertwine in a mosaic of bizarre subplots.
Particularly memorable is the stand involving a tough sergeant (Rafael Inclan) in charge of guarding the gates of the New Jerusalem camp. Troubled because his nephew Fidel (Rodrigo Ostap) is effeminate, the military official is bent on teaching him to “walk like a man.” Fidel finds refuge dressing like a woman within the cult, which will lead to a dramatic denouement (recalling the climax of helmer’s 1977 “The Place Without Limits”). Known to Mexican audiences as a star of lowbrow comedies, Inclan creates a contradictory, moving character and is the acting revelation here.
Critics who have compared Ripstein’s work to Bunuel’s will have a field day with this one. Having worked in his youth as an assistant to the Spanish master, Ripstein acknowledges his influence with open references. Rabal, of course, played the title character in Bunuel’s “Nazarin”; one of the “mysteries” is called “The Golden Age”; the leaders of the New Jerusalem exhibit the solipsistic self-righteousness of “Simon of the Desert”; and the final, apocalyptic images — some of Ripstein’s greatest achievements as a visual stylist — are set to the rhythm of thundering drums.
But as a full-fledged auteur, Ripstein is mainly faithful to himself. “Divine” can be seen as a rich compendium of his recurrent themes and obsessions: eccentrics who build their own enclosed worlds, the destructive pattern of love relationships, the inexorable designs of fate and the devotion to cinema as the true religion.
Technical credits are up to par. Production design and art direction help create the outlandish atmosphere of fanaticism and impending doom. Guillermo Granillo joins the ranks of the best cinematographers in Mexican cinema with his accomplished use of chiaroscuro lighting.