by Alonso Aguilar
In the oppressive temperatures of rural Brazil, bodies traverse the screen unceremoniously. Detached and absent-minded, different characters go through the motions of hard labor, unfazed by the thick layers of sweat drenching every inch of their clothes. They’re physically present, yet their minds are clearly elsewhere, refusing to be shaped by what they consider to be arbitrary circumstances. Eventually, their shifts end and they come into themselves once again. Mind and flesh concurring as they seek to fulfill their earthly desires and pursue dreams beyond whatever the neoliberal power structures say is available to them.
As an integral part of his worldview, these notions have spearheaded the ascent of Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro to becoming a household name in contemporary Latin American cinema. In Neon Bull (2015), reluctant cowboy Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) subverts the macho antics of his environment while aiming to develop a career in fashion design. In August Winds (2014), stoic truck driver Shirley (Dandara de Morais) embraces the attitude of her hardcore punk tapes and decides that she wants to dedicate herself to the art of the tattoo.
In both of these films, there’s a notable divide between the individual and their environment, between culture and self, a conceptual anchor that has been integral to Mascaro’s work since his early documentary features Defiant Brasília (2010), Ebb and Flow (2012) and Housemaids (2012). In each of these titles, his camera roams in an almost invasive manner through the routines of each of the protagonists, unveiling their desires and how they seek to fulfill them. There’s no real attempt to manufacture pathos or any kind of dramatic artifice, as the rugged corporeality inherent to a life on the fringes of society already exudes conflict; the contradictions between desires and possibilities captured with all their nuances by the empathic lens of the South American filmmaker.
The idea of “the body as expression” as seen in Ebb and Flow, where sign language takes center stage, eventually expanded with Mascaro’s progressive tilt towards eroticism. In Neon Bull and August Winds, he frames sexual encounters with the same contemplative demeanor he uses to register the tiresome minutiae of everyday life; a decision that highlights just how cathartic and central such an act is to these characters’ existences.
The camera stays put and forgoes editorializing these intimate moments of raw pleasure, as the bodies on screen speak volumes by themselves. Seen during working hours as automated casks, they now burst with vigor and excitement; movements spontaneous, every pore exuding ecstasy. As the sole moment in their lives in which it seems they can seize total control of their bodies and desires, sexuality presents itself as the truest form of liberation; something always present that no one can really take away from them. Or at least it seemed that way.
Divine Love (2019), Mascaro’s latest, presents itself as a sci-fi film set in 2077 Brazil, where a theocratic government oversees a society deeply ingrained in religious values. Instead of the usual underprivileged figure, the protagonist is Joana (Dira Paes), a well-off civil servant that deals with divorce cases and happens to be a member of Divino Amor, an evangelical group who offer alternative methods to physical therapy akin to matchup of swinging and fertility rites.
The ethnographic approach taken by the Recife native in his portraits of lower-class routine suggests a clear political stance, but anyone who has a general grasp of the current state of affairs in Brazilian politics will quickly understand that Divine Love is Mascaro’s bluntest work.
As setting and character roles change, so does the aesthetic, with DP Diego García building upon the hyper-stylized flourishes that appeared as vignettes in Neon Bull. Any remnant of the early naturalistic style of the artist’s documentary phase is drowned out in high-contrast fluorescence.
Each frame now permeates an aseptic aura; an eerie artificiality as precisely constructed as the social guidelines of this world of new age puritanism where sex and affection are reduced to extensions of religious duty. The one thing that could not be taken away is now sanitized. Bodies are emasculated of their subversive intent, and all that’s left for them to do is fulfill their role in society as everyone waits for some abstract reconfiguration of what once was known as desire to manifest.
The long and uninterrupted scenes of intercourse are still present. The camera is similarly distant and the same primal ecstasy can be seen in the bodies pounding against each other, yet something feels off. The vivid and unusual landscapes in which Iremar and Shirley copulated have been replaced with a nondescript room with kitschy lightning. Setting used to come second to primal urge, which clearly is no longer the case in a context of designated spaces and scheduled time slots.
Even as Joana eventually succeeds in her holy quest for pregnancy, there’s no thrill to be had, as her methods come into question. Did she respect the guidelines? Was the process pure enough? In this society the facade of progressive sexuality is still overseen by a conservative moral spectrum that yields to patriarchal values. Joana might have a respectable position within institutional power and be an ideal person of faith to most eyes, but once she’s accused of tainting the sacred pillars of marriage, the biases against her and all women come to the forefront.
Little mention has been made of technology in the film, and that’s by design. Despite playing with many aesthetic tropes of science fiction, the film sets out to function primarily as a sociological endeavor. As with previous works by the Brazilian director, the setting is merely a tool to explore particular behaviours and cultural ideas, and in Divine Love, there seems to be self-awareness about that fact; the whole concept working as a type of bleak meta-textual response to the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Before any real indication of what would eventually become his distinctive style, Mascaro explored a similar proto-dystopia in his feature debut, High-Rise (2009). There, he put together a series of talking head interviews with many unsuspecting members of the Brazilian elite, all owners of penthouses in chic beach areas. What started as a standard portrait of privileged life quickly turned into a bleak depiction of neo-liberal double-think and fascistoid ideals.
Self-proclaimed entrepreneurs and modern-day dilettantes spew condescending remarks about “self-improvement” and “overcoming the odds” while they stand in ivory towers so high-up that working-class beach-goers are barely distinguishable. The preoccupations of those below are non-existent from above, yet it is where decisions are made and reality is shaped. The world of Divine Love is just a natural endpoint, where a ruling class is so distanced from the desires of others that they end up resignifying them.
Gabriel Mascaro’s whole body of work has focused on encapsulating the subtle sparks of elation in everyday life, so maybe there’s real cause for concern when such a dedicated sensualist, seems worried about what’s being commodified.