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Disco Inferno

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Divine Love

written and directed by Gabriel Mascaro

Not rated, select theaters

Divine Love, the new film from the Brazilian writer and director Gabriel Mascaro, is a scathing commentary on Christian idolatry of the family—right up until it succumbs to the same limited imagination it satirizes.

Love opens at a disco/megachurch, where worshippers lift their hands in ecstasy as neon spotlights cut through the fog-machine incense. In the dark, facing one another in the God-drunk crowd, a couple embraces. This is 2027. “Brazil had changed,” a confident child’s voiceover tells us. “The most important celebration in the country was no longer Carnival. It was the party of Supreme Love.”

The love to which Brazil has now dedicated itself is marital, procreative love. The beaches are filled with men in Speedos—and women in burkinis. Gates like metal detectors guard the entrances to many public buildings, and women who pass through are scanned to determine their marital and reproductive status. One character finds out that she’s pregnant only when the red lights flash above her head to warn that she hasn’t “registered” her unborn child yet.

Some of the details here are unclear—the whiff of eugenics which floats through the movie never quite intersects with the plot; the film’s central invention, the evangelical sect Divine Love, seems to be at once the majority religion and a small-time storefront church a half-step from culthood. But the film is a neon-drenched, misty, smoky, glassy attempt to work the same satirical ground as The Lobster (2015). That film, in which anyone who couldn’t find a romantic partner fast enough got turned into an animal, used bleak comedy to show a society in which singlehood is tragedy. There’s only one real kind of love in the world of The Lobster, and without love no one can live.

The Lobster notably avoided religion. Its celibate rebels formed a quasi-monastic underground, where sex and romance were forbidden rather than mandatory, but the possibility that religion itself might provide some alternative form of love never arose. God’s love won’t save you from the carapace and the claws.

Divine Love, because it’s about Christians, is a lot more sensual; its church is fun. The nightclub/worship scenes offer, as the voiceover says, “redemption of the body.” What else has any clubber ever sought?

Our central worshiper, Joana (Dira Paes), works in the divorce bureaucracy. She’s a subversive. Although the country is officially secular, Joana’s Christian convictions drive her to do everything in her power to persuade her clients to stay together. When she succeeds, she receives notes and packages from grateful couples. When she fails, she gets called in to her supervisor’s office.

Joana’s frequently seen through glass, slightly warped: Now we see as in a mirror, dimly. When she confronts her loneliness, in a scene evoking baptism, she collapses in tears. Her sorrow comes from the fact that she and her husband haven’t been able to conceive a child. Their Christianity—“The family above all else. Radical, free, and so secret”—offers them no comfort. Joana’s pastor can offer the usual kind of thing that pastors say in the face of suffering (“If you want an answer, God will ask you a question”) but he can’t deny that she isn’t fulfilling her life’s purpose.

Divine Love is a weird collision of consumer good, group therapy, and pagan sex magic. The pastor offers drive-thru spiri­tual direction; after the Bible readings, the lovers of God do some extremely explicitly-filmed partner-swapping. (Both the actors and the audience should have been spared this. The extended, graphic sex scenes add nothing to the film except a reminder that there are worse things than burkinis.) And yet at the heart of this creepy, sad disco televangelism lie intense and desperate longings. Joana yearns for a child. Her unfulfilled longing has distorted her marriage, and turned her religion into an attempt to earn God’s favor through good works. She walks around inside her optimistic, fun faith, carrying her despair.

Up to this point the film is pointed, if pretty lugubrious for an ostensible comedy. Joana’s sobbing in the baptismal waters progresses to flinging the water over her body in a kind of self-flagellation. The child voiceover starts to seem too complacently knowledgeable, even smug. What once seemed to free her now seems like a cruel joke.

And then the Messiah is born. The Messiah—our knowledgeable child—is a miracle, though not because his mother is a virgin. The Messiah’s potential adoptive father abandons the family. (Nowadays we find it harder to imagine Joseph’s silent self-surrender than Mary’s strength.) The Messiah’s family circumstances rebuke the conservatives of 2027 Brazil, who view out-of-wedlock children as inferior. Overall, however, Divine Love does less to challenge the family-idolatry of its titular sect than The Lobster—and far less than the Gospels.

The movie has to keep saying “the Messiah” instead of “Jesus.” (I’m not entirely sure His Name is ever spoken.) If we were reminded of Jesus, we might be reminded of His virgin death, His proclamation that there is no love greater than laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Virginity and friendship are equally unimagined here. The child redeems our bodies—being a parent is still the only way to love not just another creature, but God.

In real-life Brazil, as in America, the birth rate is below replacement and falling. Marriage and parenting have declined; and yet we are not replacing them with celibacy. Celibacy too has declined—celibacy understood not simply as the absence of sex, but as the dedication of one’s body, through sexual renunciation, to God alone. We are so deep into a “celibacy recession” that even Catholics rarely hear that celibacy is witness, celibacy may open you to ecstatic union with God, celibacy is hope within martyrdom and a spitting in the face of death. The redemption of our bodies has already been accomplished.

Divine Love is a haunting film, unsparing in its depiction of a contemporary Christianity which seamlessly blends entertainment, ecstasy, self-improvement, and worship. Its undercurrent of anger comes in part from its religious sincerity: There’s a reason we get to hear so many specific, precisely chosen Bible passages. A man reads from I Cor. 13, the passage we all know from so many Christian weddings—and it twists in the gut, because the people in this movie think it’s only for weddings. It isn’t just that they’ve forgotten I Cor. 7. It’s that the love in which we imitate Christ has been restricted to married parents, and then, even in the film’s subversive twist, to an unmarried parent. And, unlike literally everything Jesus did, this new Messiah’s birth brings the kind of placid domestic happiness contemporary Christians long for.

No film can imagine celibacy without imagining an unconditional surrender of one’s right to pursue this happiness. As joyful, ecstatic, or even happy as celibates may be, there is something stripped and cataclysmic in our trust. In proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, we witness the apocalyptic transformation of all the goods of this life. But no hint of cataclysm shadows Divine Love’s cute nursery ending. The movie carefully plucks the sword from its Mary’s heart.

Eve Tushnet is the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church, recently published by Cascade Books.

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