Sex, faith and bureaucracy intertwine in Divine Love (Divino Amor), a futuristic, synth-wave take on fertility myths that dazzles and frustrates in equal measure. While admirable for its thoughtful, neon-drenched dystopia while finding new ways to reinvent one of the oldest stories in time, it’s let down by a repetitive structure that gives the narrative little space to breathe.
The year is 2027. The place is Brazil. Technological advancements mean that metal detectors can spot whether a woman is pregnant or not. Religion has become the driving force of the supposedly secular state, yet rejigged for a futurist generation. Churches have been replaced by raves, trance dedications to Christ play out in fields, and pastors are even consulted via drive through.
Our hero is Joana (Dira Paes). She works as a notary, authorizing divorces. Though it is not her position to, she tries to convince couples to stay together. The ones she saves thank her by sending her cards and framed paintings of themselves, which she has collected and turned into a small shrine to fidelity. What she wants most in the world is a baby, which apparently requires having graphic (and I mean graphic) sex with husband Danilo (Júlio Machado) every single which way.
At times, Divine Love plays like Private Life‘s sexed-up evil twin, with this poor couple trying everything possible to conceive a child. Danilo must improve his fertility, and thus dangles upside down on a strange machine so that bright red light can shine on his balls. They are members of Divine Love, an evangelical Christian sect that only partners can join, and the place has some interesting ways to encourage fertility. In one porn scene that looks art-designed by James Turell, they have sex with other partners, with Danilo only switching over just before the crucial moment. I’m not sure the Bible ever mentioned this.
Given the very real fascist takeover of the country by Bolsonaro — a man opposed to homosexuality, the environment, and just general human kindness — this warped look at humanity feels awfully prescient, showing how society can become so strange and so perverse so quickly. The aesthetic has been thought through with immense care, as neon lights dominate, giving everything a digital, sexy sheen. Shot in widescreen, the film has a poppy, music video-esque quality. It’s pleasurable to look at, making this society seem seductive and alluring despite its more insidious qualities.
Yet, if you are going to make a futuristic film on a small budget, you have to be smart about what you can and can’t show. Divine Love could have suggested more of how the world is composed instead of simply revisiting the same three or four locations over and over again. The film starts strong, but at 101 minutes, it takes a little too long to go anywhere. The crucial reveal comes too late, giving little reason to care about Joana, especially considering a grating baby voiceover which feels more Look Who’s Talking than anything particularly profound. Any grand thesis statement on the future of Brazil feels lost, making this the quintessential example of style over substance.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.