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Sick of the same old dystopias? The movie Divine Love has the cure

The Brazilian film offers a fresh take on a tired genre

Dira Paes and Julio Machado in Divine Love.
| Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Just as it’s begun to seem that the creative well from which dystopias are drawn has run dry, along comes Divine Love (Divino Amor).

More often than not, films about the future — particularly those in which society has altered in any significant way — conjure up bleak landscapes and brutal totalitarian regimes. Whether it’s The Hunger Games, Dredd, or The Maze Runner, each takes and runs with a relatively grimdark and harsh sensibility.

By contrast, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro’s vision of the future (which premiered at Sundance on the 25th) is filled with lush pinks, blues, and purples, as well as thrumming, catchy music to accompany the proceedings. Love has become the dominant force in Brazil in 2027, with the theocratic state-mandated celebration of “Supreme Love” (which takes the form of a huge, joyous rave) surpassing Carnaval as the most important holiday of the year. Instead of metal detectors at public buildings, scans are made for pregnancy, and confession and spiritual services can be accessed at drive-throughs.

Dira Paes stars as Joana, a notary who uses her position to try to help couples mend their marriages rather than going through with the divorce paperwork they bring her. Her devotion to the church of Divine Love and its ideals, however, is put under strain as she and her partner Danilo (Julio Machado) struggle to conceive. Has she done something wrong, or is God deliberately ignoring her prayers?

A session at the church of Divine Love.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The atypical bent to Divine Love’s world-build means that the trope of exploring pregnancy in dystopias or otherwise inhospitable futures (Bird Box, the Alien series, A Quiet Place, etc.) is turned on its head, too. The film doesn’t shift into a survival story in the traditional sense; Joana is never in any direct danger of death, and neither is anyone around her, and Mascaro’s focus always remains on her relationship with her faith and the world around her. Without spoiling too much, the metaphorical bomb that eventually drops may not come as too much of a surprise given the film’s focus on religion (and unfortunately falls apart a little by the end of the film). However, it’s an apt device through which to examine the way the mandates set by any given religion can fall apart under closer inspection, or are easier said than done.

This is still a dystopia, and the bright colors mask something more insidious. Supreme Love, despite how freeing its raves and emphasis on love might seem, is a conservative party. Though never made explicit, it is suggested that homosexuality and abortion are forbidden, and the pressure that builds upon Joana’s shoulders quickly begins to feel oppressive. Even the lovemaking — of which there is a lot, as shouldn’t be surprising given the subject matter — has a clinical quality to it, even as it’s shot (by Diego Garcia) with an emphasis on sensuality.

What makes it eerier is that Mascaro is also taking the temperature of contemporary Brazil, as the conservative, religious ideology of Supreme Love isn’t too different from that of the country’s current elected leaders. (In a move more dystopian than anything in Divine Love, the recently elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced in December his plan to abolish the country’s human rights ministry in October, and appoint a conservative evangelical pastor to lead a ministry to oversee the “Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights” instead.) That touch of real-life allegory also makes Divine Love more impressive, as it’s executed so naturally — and without ever overwhelming Joana’s place at the center of the story — that it never feels like it’s being obvious or preachy.

Joana in crisis.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Joana’s faith does not make her weak or thoughtless (and who wouldn’t want to subscribe to the idea that love is all-powerful?). Mascaro isn’t interrogating people’s need for and comfort in religion so much as inspecting the way it can fail or confound those who rely upon it given its inherent contradictions, and the way in which the personal and political can intersect and clash. If anything, Mascaro is kinder than he needs to be in relation to the political climate he’s reflecting.

It’s all carried magnificently by Paes, who pulls the film along even as the material she’s working with grows thinner and thinner. She shines throughout, particularly as Joana struggles with the way her devotion seems to be going unrewarded. 2027 Brazil feels like a dream — missives to God fill up LED screens at raves and the drive-through confessional booths include neon lights and pop hymns — but Joana, in her alternating selfishness and (attempted) selflessness, feels real.

What’s novel about Divine Love is undercut by its conclusion, which swings a little too wide when it comes to hitting thematic marks, but the film is still remarkable for building a dystopia and addressing a multitude of well-worn themes in a way that feels utterly fresh. Nothing that Mascaro is tackling is necessarily new; the key is that his approach is.