“It was 2027. Brazil had changed.” These are the first words spoken in “Divine Love,” delivered in remote voiceover by a strangely impassive-sounding child — and even as the film’s flickering neons and giddy synth score invite some suspension of reality, it’s hard not to wonder what President Jair Bolsonaro has done with the place. For all its creamy, dreamy styling, Gabriel Mascaro’s limber, sensual sci-fi functions as an urgent cautionary allegory. Set in Brazil’s near future, where conservative Evangelical values — precisely those that the country’s recently elected far-right leadership rode to victory — have swept the population, it’s a heady vision of a secular state hanging by a slender thread. Following a premiere in Sundance’s world cinema competition, the film’s blend of on-the-button politics and seductive aesthetics should make it hot festival property.
This being a Mascaro film, there’s nothing dour about “Divine Love’s” doomsaying: If disco-dystopian drama is a viable subgenre, then he has it very much on lock. Emboldened by the critical triumph of his startling sophomore feature “Neon Bull,” the director has doubled down on that film’s darkly fluorescent formal delights, once more in collaboration with brilliant cinematographer Diego Garcia: In frame after immaculately composed frame, his latest finds rich chiaroscuro in hot pink and electric blue. There’s more to that chosen palette than its mere fabulousness, however. Heteronormativity and rigidly defined gender roles are the order of the day in 2027 Brazil, where the God-fearing, couples-oriented Party of Supreme Love has supplanted Carnaval as the country’s premier cultural event, and mandatory scanners in public places announce women’s child-bearing status to all and sundry.
If that sounds hellish to some, it’s a veritable utopia to Joana (Dira Paes), a deeply religious notary who’s determined to use her position in the registry office to advance her favored family values. Playing marriage counselor to every couple who arrives at her desk seeking to process a divorce, she does everything in her power to prevent them signing the paperwork — resorting either to emotional guilt-tripping or Kafkaesque legal pedantry if she has to, in some the film’s most drily funny scenes.
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Still, it doesn’t take a psychologist to tell that her idealization of marriage as an institution masks an unideal marital life of her own: Joana and her florist husband Danilo (Julio Machado) are stuck in a holding pattern, frustrated by their inability to conceive a child.
It’s not for lack of trying, not least since the couple’s active sex life and ardent religious devotion intersect in their adherence to the church of Divine Love — a cultish, couples-only blend of worship, group therapy and good old-fashioned partner-swapping, culminating in woozy, lustrously staged group sex sessions of the type that Bolsonaro-type conservatives would be less quick to approve. (Permissive as this faith is, same-sex desire remains off the cards: “The seeds of life could only be deposited in the mother earth,” members are pointedly told.) In other words, the couple that prays together stays together, but sleeps occasionally apart: Sustaining an atmosphere that runs from the sweatily carnal to the clinical, sometimes in the same scene, “Divine Love” envisions an unsettling compromise reached between Brazil’s most puritanical and most hedonistic extremes of society.
Joana’s increasingly driven pursuit of motherhood is the throughline of the film’s script: Though sparely written by Mascaro in collaboration with three other writers, it’s rife with blunt symbolic reminders of her maternal lack. (Who is that eerie, omniscient child expressing Joana’s very adult thoughts in voiceover? An answer eventually comes, but not without a fresh bouquet of accompanying questions.) Subtlety isn’t always an operative word here, particularly by the time Joana’s dog leaps over the wall to impregnate the neighbor’s bitch in heat, though Paes’s performance never wavers in its quiet, agitated-from-the-inside-out composure.
The storytelling, meanwhile, is fixed at a low, slow simmer throughout — all the better to accommodate Mascaro’s sinuous dips into erotic trance, and to revel in the many choice details of the film’s lo-fi, hi-style world-building. Making expansive use of a tight budget, production designer Thales Junqueira deserves particular plaudits for situating “Divine Love’s” most outrageous provocations in a delirious but somehow plausibly mundane waking nightmare of neon-drenched Evangelical raves (“God Fulfils Me,” blare the video screens behind the DJ) and brutalist drive-thru confession booths, where a patriarchal priest offers counsel with a shot of dry-ice ambience.
Such delicious futuristic absurdities hardly detract from the fact that Mascaro is holding rather a frightening mirror (alongside a glittering mirrorball) to his country’s political present. “Divine Love” arrives shortly after Bolsonaro abolished Brazil’s human rights ministry to form the Ministry of Women, the Family and Human Rights under the steerage of rigorously anti-choice Evangelical preacher Damares Alves — a move that once wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a bleak fantasy like this one. The new age of Brazilian protest cinema begins here, and “Divine Love” has kicked it off in dancing shoes.