By Josh Gardner
After making a splash on the festival circuit with Neon Bull / Boi Neon in 2015 (winner of the Cinema Tropical Award for Best Latin American Film), Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro returns with his latest film, Divine Love. Premiering at Sundance in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, the film tells the story of Joana (Dira Paes), a devout notary public in 2027 Brazil hoping to start her own family. Mascaro delves into the psyche of modern day Brazil with this erotic and astonishing look into the life of a religious servant. Before heading to the Berlinale for the European Premiere of his film, TropicalFRONT spoke to Mascaro in Park City about religion, testicular sonograms, and his (pun intended) body of work.
How did you come up with the idea to set a story of religious faith in the near future?
Gabriel: Brazil is a country which is changing very rapidly and this conservative agenda is becoming much, much stronger and quickly taking hold of a large part of the population. Quite ironically, although the social programs from the leftist government brought a lot of people out of poverty, the faithful associate economic prosperity with religion.
Evangelicals haven’t been much represented much in the arts in Brazil, as it was a religion that was very much associated with low-income groups and on the margins of society. I grew up lower middle class, and I saw the phenomenon of the Evangelical rise. I knew that at some point this was going to explode--in fact it ended up being much quicker than we imagined with the election of Bolsonaro.
The idea for this film was to speculate about a near future...where religion holds more power over society than it does nowadays. Instead of being about a character who fights against religion, I wanted a character who wants even more religion within the state. The challenge was to create a character who, in day-to-day life, would be someone with whom I wouldn’t necessarily connect--someone I might reject, --and to find points of connection in trying to understand this character within this world.
The performance from your lead actress, Dira Paes, is really incredible. How did you work with her to build trust and create this rather exposed, intimate performance?
Gabriel: Dira Paes is a very well known and wonderful actress in Brazil, and I wanted to work with her. I sent her the script and didn't really know how she would react...because she's very famous and a big TV star. She immediately called and said, "This film is mine." When she entered in the film, it was with huge strength, force, commitment, and heart. At the Q&A at the premiere, someone asked what it was like doing all of the sex scenes in the film. She said that the biggest challenge wasn't doing the sex scenes, but the building of the character, and the faith of the character to make sex and faith come together in a way that was believable and consistent. This was the real challenge for her as an actress much more so than the sex scenes themselves. She's a very intelligent, very special person, and the partnership was really, really incredible.
Speaking of sex and the body, it seems to be a throughline across most of your films. Why, as a storyteller, is that important to you?
Gabriel: In this case, I was thinking about the body and the state in a context where there's biopolitical control of people's bodies and people's movement. I wanted to investigate a new scale of violence and pleasure, and how that binary is diluted in the context of biopolitics. The film highlights the space of pleasure within a religion that's very conservative. At the same time, sex is pragmatic because it's for procreation, and the film is exploring those things.
I was also concerned with the contradictions of the place of the women's body within this state, within this religious reality. But I wanted to explore the male body within this context, too. So often, when it's the traditional narrative about problems of fertility within religion, it's about the womb and who's infertile. I had seen lots of films where you have ultrasounds of women, but I had never seen a film where there's an ultrasound of a man's testicles. So there are these small elements that reflect on this dislocation of how one thinks about the women and the man's body within this context.
Overall, the presence of “the body” in cinema really fascinates me. The body is almost like an entity beyond the psychology of the characters. For me, this research and this desire to work with the body and space, it comes very, very naturally. It's not conscious. It comes from within. Once the films are released and journalists start asking questions, that’s when I realize I’ve done it again. What makes me happy is that it happens repeatedly, but in a very different way and with different contexts each time.
Finally, what does it means for you to be here with your film at Sundance and how has the experience been so far?
Gabriel: It's a very special experience. This is my first time being here at Sundance. Lots of films that were important to me are films that have passed through Sundance. Now, putting the film out into the world here at Sundance and, in a couple couple weeks, in Berlin, it's really quite special.