Q&A: Gabriel Mascaro on Divine Love

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

Dec 02, 2020

A husband and wife clasp their hands around another husband and wife couple in an embrace in a room lit by purple neon in a scene from Gabriel Mascaro's Divine Love

In November, Wex Film/Video Studio curator Jennifer Lange connected online with Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro, director of the new feature Divine Love, which was supported by a Wex Film/Video Studio residency, and a contributor to the Artist Residency Award project Cinetracts '20. The Wex presented the Ohio premiere of Divine Love during 2019's Picture Lock and both films are currently available to stream here. Today we're sharing the first part of their talk, in which Mascaro shares the thoughts and events that drove Divine Love and the role that the Wex and Lange had in helping to initiate the project. We'll share part two of their talk next Wednesday.

It’s funny, a year ago you were here at the Wexner Center, screening Divine Love. It feels like a lifetime ago, especially now. And, before that, it was about two years ago, I think, that you were at the Wexner Center working on a photo project and screening your last feature Neon Bull. I remember so clearly, we talked about this germ of an idea for Divine Love. The film looks into the future, but only by about eight years. And, when I watched it back in 2019, I thought of it as being very prescient because of the direction that Brazil was heading with Evangelical religion taking over the country and becoming a more popular religion than Catholicism. But now, thinking about it being released into the world in this particular moment, in a broader way, is really exciting to me because I’m seeing it through a completely different lens. 

So, my first question is, how are you thinking about the film in this new context of a global pandemic? The world you imagine on screen is a strange world that we now find ourselves in today. The idea that people would be scanned before entering a building to see if they are pregnant seems crazy. But the idea that people would be temperature-checked before entering a building because of COVID would have been equally far-fetched two years ago. 

The weird thing about our times, I think, is that, when you watch movies or TV series and when you talk about dystopias of near-future worlds, in general, you discuss technology. And the most challenging and exciting thing about creating Divine Love was to not think necessarily about technology, but to think about some kind of society that would change, but the main change would be perceived by the cultural change. So, when I started the movie saying that, in Brazil 2027, the most important party in Brazil, is not the carnival anymore, it’s actually now an Evangelical gospel rave, it says a lot about a country that had the carnival as its main cultural manifestation. I started thinking about how I could reflect this culture change, I became quite obsessed. I thought of all the small details to start reflecting how we can create some kind of time-space displacement. The cultural change is not only about technology or this kind of advanced progress of technology. We are talking about a society in Divine Love that is controlling the female body even more than today. And, so, the movie is also a reflection about how society, culturally is trying to control the female body.

And of course, when you think about today and this very crazy conservative agenda spread out everywhere in the world, we understand that the movie is not just about Brazil. It is also a movie about our times in terms of how a lot of countries are facing, dealing with, this conservative agenda everywhere. Curiously, I started writing the first line of this movie in Ohio. I have great memories, when I was in the Wexner Center for the Arts and participating in the residency, when the first ideas came to me and I shared with you, “Jennifer, I'm thinking about, a movie about this. What do you think?” Our first discussions were the very beginning. So, it's a very special to see the film now ready and really contemporary of our time. 

Right, when you were here we talked about your idea for the film and you showed me videos of these Evangelical raves, which were surreal and which I hadn't seen before. You conceived of the film before Jair Bolsonaro was elected, right?

Yeah. Actually, it was written, like, two years before Jair Bolsonaro was a candidate. And in some ways the reflection about Evangelical culture in Brazil became obsession because I could see the country totally changing everywhere. In the periphery, where there is a lack of state in Brazil, you have the church. We have the Evangelical church and they are very strong, connecting to the local community. The people are very engaged in the religious mission, so, for me something really, really strong would happen not too far [in the future]. And the change was the Bolsonaro election. The result was surprising, but not that much. The big surprise was that change came so fast and maybe, potentially, as an extension of the US elections. Well, the Trump election was also some kind of surprise for everybody.

I remember we talked about politics in Brazil and the Trump election, I think I was still in denial, and you pointed out the idea that maybe it wasn't so much of a surprise that Trump was elected, because maybe the pendulum has to swing very far in the wrong direction to get back in the right direction. Trump and Bolsonaro are parallel figures. Watching Divine Love, I think a lot about science and faith and—again, it’s really hard to watch it now without thinking about COVID—the ways in which these two leaders are so openly dismissive of science. And their success totally relies on faith. They've built these cult-like followings that really rely on people being blindly allegiant and faithful to the nonsense that they're spreading, and you see that in Divine Love, in a way. It’s a portrait of what happens when blind faith goes way too far, you know, in an extreme situation.

Yeah, that's true. And we couldn't be in the worst moment of our time, when the pandemic comes in the moment, especially, where science is being negated by these two very important leaders in huge countries with massive populations. And religion [faith] is the first, like, solution for that, for something that could be totally scientifically direct.

There’s an economy to religion, also. There's this whole economic side, where I know in Brazil and in the United States, too, there's a huge industry of Christian music and Christian pop stars. In Brazil, there’s an entire industry built around religion with the raves being a prime example of it. You know, you’re there to “worship” but you're there for a party. And there are pop stars in Brazil, who are pop stars because of their association with Evangelical religions!

Yeah, that's true. And there is official data that, since 2010 in Brazil, every hour a new religious organization is open officially, is being registered. Twenty-four new religious organizations every day. We're talking about 15 years of, every hour, a new organization! It's a huge growth in terms of religious institutions. And the contradictory thing about this is that it happened exactly during the Lula government. So, all these social policies or social development public policies that were created by the [Lula] government? The people, they [attributed] this to religion. They do not associate them with politics. They associate their prosperity to religion.

So, there is a weird disconnect. Exactly when the Brazilian government (Lula, Dilma) had an economic boom and social and public policies were being created by the government, the fruit of [those policies] is attributed to the church, to the religion, to god. So, we are living in a very specific moment of our time, I’d say.

The film has such a beautiful look. It's gorgeous to watch and you’ve created this feeling with a color palette that is so precise and sensual. You did this in Neon Bull as well. I was wondering if you could talk about the look and mood of the film, and how much you anticipated what you were going to do while you were writing the script, before you shot it, in terms of the palette and also the music, which is also so evocative. 

The funny thing about that is that I wrote the script and then I understood very close to shooting that I had a huge challenge. Because this religion, the Evangelical religion in Brazil, and I'm not sure about how they work in US, but here they do not use the any kind of symbols, or religious symbols that we recognize in the apostolic, Roman [Catholic] Church. So, you know the Christian tradition is totally different from the Evangelical in Brazil. There is no sculpture, no cross, no element that we recognize as a ritual of religiousness in the Christian perspective. So, for me, it became, “Oh, wow. It's so challenging, but also very powerful.”

And I came to understand that the Brazilian Evangelical religion is almost the equivalent of Conceptual Art in the history of art. We are talking about a very conceptual religion, a “white cube” religion. And it’s the word of god, just that. So, it's so conceptual and became quite intriguing to me because we do not reflect a lot about the aesthetic perspective of this religion in Brazil and how revolutionary it is in terms of iconoclasm and breaking the standards of religious tradition. In the history of religion, all religions in some way, use some kind of image, some kind of elements to improve their rituals and in Brazil Evangelical there is nothing.

It became quite exciting, as well, to start thinking or projecting some kind of a near future evolution of religion that appropriated elements that we recognize nowadays as progressive as some kind of pop, neon stuff, but that serves a purpose for advancing the conservative agenda. So, in Divine Love I bring this stuff, the lights, the neon Divine Love symbol, the brand of the church, to the movie. In some way, the colors come from this symbol of the church and I understood that I only had sensory elements to relate to, like, lights, music, smoke and then…word of god! So, those were my tools. So, at some point, it seemed to me, I had to deal with some artificial experience to create this movie. 

You write such strong female characters. And I also noticed and thought about the fact that issues of fertility figure in both Neon Bull and Divine Love. Could you talk a little bit about these themes of fertility and also the way you write female characters and the way you write them as strong, self-possessed sexual beings?

The way I write female characters is also the way I rewrite masculinity. We are facing nowadays a very strong debate about how to represent and how to update the perspective of the female body in cinema. I'm sure you have seen thousands of movies about the female body lying in a medical context and the doctor is scanning her belly to check something about fertility. This image has been reproduced thousands of times in thousand movies. I've never in my life seen testicular scans. And, actually, scientifically, the large majority of cases of infertility are not connected to the female body but to the male body. So, then you start to reflect about why, why have I never seen this image? We must talk about a new representation of the female body and also bring this new reflection of masculinity and the male body. So that's why I put this phallocentric project totally “back-forward.” The character in the movie uses different techniques to develop his fertility and it's actually the total inversion of the phallocentric idea.

Actor Dira Paes kneels in a shallow body of water, hands up and head bowed with her hair covering her face, as if in deep prayer, in a scene from Gabriel Mascaro's Divine Love

Dira Paes in Divine Love; images courtesy of Memento Films

Part of the strength of your characters is in the way you’ve written them but part of it comes from the actors themselves and their performances. Could you talk about casting? Particularly given the explicit nature of the group “therapy” sessions.

It's a great question because the first main question when we were in Berlinale in the Q&A was about how difficult it was to make all these sex scenes and how she [Dira Paes] was so strong in that. And she [Paes] said, actually the most difficult thing to me is not making a sex scene, but to make a sex scene with faith for god. The main challenge for her was how to prove to the audience that she is doing everything she's doing for god. So creating some form of faith is so much more difficult than to have sex. And, actually, the film was, in some way, based in some text about how this stuff happened in the Middle Ages. There are a few books, hagiographies (lives of saints), that reveal studies of women who had quite close connections with god, in terms of sexuality. There are a few women in the Middle Ages who had some experience of sexual pleasure with god. They donated their bodies to god and the joy, the pleasure, the extreme pleasure that came with this experience of connection involved sexuality. So, even in the history of religion, we have this connection [between] sexuality, pleasure and faith.

The filmmaking culture in Pernambuco and in Recife, in particular, is so rich. But so is the region’s history of political activism. You see how these two urges take shape, so incredibly, in films like yours and Kleber Mendoca Filho’s (Bacurau). How do you think about those connections in Divine Love and Neon Bull? Do you see them as activist films?

I see them as activist films, but the activism that we are talking about is  understanding new masculinities, understanding the transformation of society, updating

and really understanding human desires, human dreams in different contexts. And what I'm trying to push in terms of narrative and story and my political point of view is that we need to see “otherness” with the sophistication it deserves. And, so, I try to avoid this black and white, binary understanding of politics and try to play in the gray zone, where we can see more complex and more subtle perspectives.

In Neon Bull, it’s a movie about a cowboy who wants to be a fashion designer living in a very contradictory environment where his dream is very ambivalent. His body, essentially, is the politics of the movie. When we talk about Neon Bull, the cowboy who wants to be this fashion designer, we are talking about a body, a very contradictory body. I’m not dealing with if he’s straight or gay, I’m talking about this guy who is facing contradictory feelings in his body, like the pleasure and the violence. He is dealing with the sensitivity and the braveness. So, this political ambivalence really intrigues me as a political statement. We can understand the micro-politics of the experience of the character’s journey.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I'm researching the elderly body. Especially after COVID, we could totally see a discussion or reflection about the elderly body in contemporary society. So, this fragile risk group. Can you imagine being in the risk group? That’s a new identity that has been generated for them in terms of society, how they perceive their bodies in this society, in a society that looks for productivity, for economic growth. It's quite an intriguing moment to be elderly, to be in the risk group. So, I'm reflecting and studying how to understand the elderly body in a society that has been changed by COVID.