Gabriel Mascaro’s sci-fi drama is an eye-catching effort that doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it does.
On the surface, Divine Love isn’t too new. It’s the near future, the government has veered well into authoritarianism, and the concept of human reproduction seems alien. Well, make that heavenly. The regime of this 2027 Brazil employs civil servants to meddle in others’ personal lives. They prevent divorces and keep a keen, often autonomous eye on people’s pregnancies and fertility. The difference with Divine Love is that, beyond the surface, this world speaks more to the battle between faith and science and the hypocrisies that ensue. Alas, the movie doesn’t actually go beyond the surface.
It’s an okay enough premise. One woman by the name of Joana (Dira Paes) is a worker bee, and she and her husband, Danilo (Julio Machado), are failing to have a child. They’re even part of a religious group called Divine Love where staunch conservatives go to worship and have group sex, but not for their own pleasure, oh no. They would never be hedonistic. When Joana and Danilo aren’t partaking in that, they use science to help further God’s will. You know, like lying naked under UV lights to boost fertility.
When science works, it’s just another way God’s glory shines through. When it doesn’t, it’s because science must not be real. It’d be a fascinating idea with a more incisive voice, but Gabriel Mascaro’s film thinks these contradictions are much more unique than they actually are. These ideas—the contradictions and cherry-picking that lead people’s beliefs—aren’t too new. The movie just thinks they are. The material is timeless, but it thinks it’s a timely, sociopolitical warning. As weird as the script thinks it is, it’s never really that weird.
One has to wonder where it got lost in translation. Then again, it’s possible the movie was never all that together, and the unfocused approach makes Divine Love feel like a treatment put on the screen. Take the writing. Mascaro is one of four credited screenwriters alongside Rachel Daisy Ellis, Esdras Bezerra, and Lucas Paraizo. (Marcelo Gomes also gets a “collaborating writer” credit.) There’s also a voiceover that frames it all, but it points to more narrative risks than the writers take. This jumble of approaches shows itself, and the final product places too much space between its ideologies to let the big questions fully form.
That said, it’s quite a pretty movie. Fans of backlit environments and neon are sure to at least have something to enjoy even if the movie works better as a fetish object than something fully formed. Diego García flirts with the uncanny in how he shoots most locations: They’re nice to look at, sure, but they’re never too dynamic in composition. In this regard, he and Mascaro keep an invisible barrier between viewers and subjects, and it works well enough as a parallel to Joana’s own quest for faith just out of reach. It’s more effective in theory than in reality, but that’s not its fault.
The material is timeless, but it thinks it’s a timely, sociopolitical warning. As weird as the script thinks it is, it’s never really that weird.
Divine Love just doesn’t have enough to say, and it definitely doesn’t have enough new to say. The war between science and religion is something to explore, but Mascaro and company don’t embed that conflict deep enough in this specific world. They don’t make that world too specific either; it’s more stereotypical than archetypical even with its quick allusions to Brazilian politics, and the movie’s conflation of conservatism and sex isn’t nearly as evocative as it thinks it is. There’s such a focus on the po-faced, glassy sheen of it all that the theology takes a back seat. When it really pops up, it’s too late.
When Divine Love is engaging, it’s at its most disparate moments past the hour mark. Up until then is an effort that can seem to exist in spite of itself. It’s increasingly ludicrous, yes, but it sorely lacks any sense of humor. Perhaps its ending would have had more of an impact had its character study or emotions been more fleshed out. Mascaro has crafted something fine in the technical sense, but it’s hard to take the film seriously when it’s so lacking in self-awareness.
Divine Love opens in select theaters and virtual cinemas this Friday, November 13.