Neon Prayers

By Armando Quesada Webb

After exploring rural Brazil in Ventos de Agosto (Winds of August) and Boi Neon (Neon Bull), Gabriel Mascaro turns his attention to the city, speculating for the first time in his career about the future of the South American nation, even as he dissects its current social and political state.

It is the year 2027 and Brazil has become a secular country, though permeated more than ever by Christian ideas and values. In these circumstances, Joanna, a deeply religious woman, uses her position in a notary public’s office to try to keep couples from getting divorced.

Mascaro injects his film with a retro esthetic that invades the screen from the moment of the hypnotic opening credits: synthesizers, neon lights, vivid fluorescent colors. The photographic approach contrasts with the atmosphere of the churches and bureaucratic buildings where the action of the film unfolds. In his visual presentation, the director plays lavishly with colors and sensations, maintaining his trademark style. As in Mascaro’s last film, the Mexican Diego García is the director of photography. The two of them follow up on several of the resources employed in Boi Neon, such as the use of wide takes, with the camera placed far from the characters, who rarely enter the foreground. In his examination of Brazil’s near future, the filmmaker is little concerned with technological development, focusing rather on the cultural and social changes that may come of the consolidation of a theocracy. With no need to make any direct references to the contemporary political situation, DIVINO AMOR (Divine Love) represents nevertheless a scathing critique of the expansion of Protestant Christianity among the far right in Latin America, embodied in present-day Brazil by President Jair Bolsonaro.

“The government must protect life.” This is one of many conservative slogans that Bolsonaro has wielded to move forward his agenda. Although absolute government control over people’s bodies seems the stuff of dystopias, it remains a danger in Latin America. Mascaro’s vision of the future can sometimes seem alarming close. Even the “self-blessing” rituals in which the main character engages, which might seem to suggest a satire of religious fanaticism, already actually exist in several Latin American countries, a result of the unbridled spread of neo- Pentecostalism. In the future imagined by Mascaro, all sectors of Brazilian society, in all their contrasting variety, are unified under governmental control. Conservatives appropriate pop culture in order to appeal to young people and transform religion into a celebration of excess. When not even sex and partying can escape neo-Pentecostal domination, totalitarianism is just around the corner.

Translation: Gregory Dechant