Divine Love is a frustrating, contemptuous affair that ultimately builds little depth into its religio-dystopic premise.
Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love comes at a timely moment for Brazil. Recently-appointed President Jair Bolsonaro, a strong proponent of “traditional” family values and himself a former member of the Social Christian Party, embodies a similar ideology as the film’s 2027 dystopic cultural landscape. The narrative centers on Joana (Dira Paes), an administration worker who deals with the finalization of divorces, but who also attempts to help mend these broken marriages by introducing couples to a cult named Divine Love, which uses sex and biblical teaching as a stimulant for strained relationships. Of course, the film also reflects more familiar, technology-specific dystopian tropes, set in a world where detectors in shops and public buildings reveal your marital and pregnancy status as you walk through them. In this way, Mascaro’s film speaks to current anxieties about how our personal data is constantly being harvested for supposed ease of use, and plays up the dangers of allowing such information to become public knowledge.
A lack of privacy leads to social stigma — in this case, of unmarried, divorced, or infertile people — and Divine Love suggests that we may be becoming more judgmental of those less able or willing to hold down relationships. It’s fine thematic territory to explore, but where Joana is concerned there’s frustratingly little to hold onto, as she is so distinctly single-minded as to be difficult to care about or find depth in. Her ongoing fertility issues should make her a relatable, even sympathetic, character, yet Mascaro paints her as shrewish, self-righteous, and open to ridicule. While vaguely comedic in its satirization of marriage and religion, there’s an off-putting contemptuous undertone to Divine Love. Given Mascaro’s caution about moving toward such a dangerously fixed position on commitment and relationships, it’s an understandable approach to take, but it doesn’t allow much room for empathy to develop. And the introduction of a bizarre evangelical plot point designed to test Joana in the film’s final third feels both ill-considered and underdeveloped. If Divine Love feels dramatically dissatisfying and frustratingly open-ended (and it does), the best that can be said of it is that it at least provides viewers with a novel look at how institutional conventions may continue to be shaped in a 21st century increasingly and frighteningly reflective of such neo-traditional renewal.
Originally published as part of London Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.