The religious theme of the 69th Berlinale continues with two films from the Panorama sidebar. First off we have TREMORS, the sophomore feature of Guatemalan writer/director Jayro Bustamante, whose debut IXCANUL also premiered in Berlin and went on to become Guatemala’s first-ever Oscar submission back in 2015.
While still set in the director’s native country, TREMORS offers a complete change of scenery in every other way. Instead of aboriginal settlements in the heart of tropical jungles, the story revolves around an upper-class family and takes place against a decidedly urban backdrop. We meet said family right away, as successful businessman and father of two Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) arrives at a luxurious, glumly lit mansion in heavy rain. From the words of astonishment, fury and blame that greet him at the family gathering there, we learn that Pablo has just admitted to having an affair with another man. What follows is a sobering, thoroughly riveting look at homosexuality within a devoutly religious, archconservative society.
Bustamante’s screenplay is characterized above all by its clear-eyed specificity. It introduces us to the loving relationship Pablo has with Francisco, a younger man from a very different background and social standing, but doesn’t indulge in the kind of tragic romanticism one might expect from similarly themed films. With great lucidity it takes us through the many practical hardships facing the couple and particularly a white-collar family man. The third act focuses on a church-based gay conversion camp that seeks to turn its participants into robotized Jesus freaks. Both its methods and effects are carefully illustrated and chilling to watch.
This doesn’t mean the movie is without a tender, emotional core though. As cold and dehumanizing as the depictions of pan-societal anti-LGBTQ sentiments are, those moments Pablo spends in the company of his loved ones feel all the more like breaths of fresh, life-giving air. A passionate sex scene later in the film communicates not just the rawest form of desire but a near-desperate need for honesty and intimacy. Another brief encounter between Francisco and a changed Pablo during church service where everything is said with an embrace that lasts a beat too long is quietly devastating in its articulation of an unspoken goodbye.
Showing remarkable restraint and a willingness to explore systematic discrimination beyond surface-level dramatizations, Bustamante’s direction impresses. Also impressive is the beautiful, expressively milky cinematography by DP Luis Armando Arteaga, who also shot last year’s Berlinale winner THE HEIRESSES from Paraguay. Of the three biggest European film festivals, Berlin has always been (by far) the most queer-friendly. And for its eloquence, poise and unequivocal humanism, TREMORS should be considered a more than solid contender for the iconic Teddy Award this year. Bonus point for this memorable killer line: “Faith is like alcohol, we all choose our own drink.”
Meanwhile, faith is quite literally intoxicating people in Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro’s third narrative feature DIVINE LOVE, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and continued its festival run in Berlin. Set in 2027, this bold, unconventional relationship drama feels scarily prescient in its dissection of love, religion and the pursuit of fulfillment in the 21st century.
Joana (Dira Paes) is a public notary who oversees divorce cases day in, day out. As a devout Christian, she tries her best to talk people out of breaking their holy marital bond and advises unhappy couples to visit the titular counseling group. She and her husband Danilo (Julio Machado) are members of the group themselves, having been trying for years and failing to conceive. At first this all sounds harmlessly benevolent, especially considering the film’s socio-political context where the church has started to aggressively take over aspects of everyday life. As we find out what really goes down behind the secretive doors of DIVINE LOVE, however, things get weird pretty quickly.
The script by Mascaro and his co-writers isn’t bulletproof in that its many brilliant ideas don’t necessarily come together as a meaningful, organic whole. What brilliant ideas they are though. With a few simple but distinct strokes including pregnancy-detecting security controls, drive-through prayer stations and those ridiculous Jesus rave parties, the unsettling contours of a faith-based future reveal themselves effectively. The most inspired touch, however, is the third-act plot twist that uses an unexpected development to examine notions of love, sex and spirituality completely anew. Whether you read it as satire, science fiction or admonitions about our increasingly totalitarian times, the film’s concluding monologue is one of mystical profundity. Very provocative.
Gorgeously shot by Diego García who also lensed Mascaro’s last film, the exceptionally good-looking NEON BULLS, Paul Dano’s deservedly acclaimed debut WILDLIFE, and one of this century’s great cinematographic achievements, CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, DIVINE LOVE is a constant visual delight. More importantly, its flamboyant, neon-enhanced aesthetics directly feed into the overall design of a fanaticized world. One may not notice it while watching the film, but this is a thoughtful, hypnotically rich piece of work that will probably be on your mind for a while.
Over in the main competition, two films with serious Golden Bear potential have screened in the meantime: Turkish director Emin Alper’s A TALE OF THREE SISTERS and German director Angela Schanelec’s I WAS AT HOME, BUT. Both of these, as well as Chinese director Wang Quan’an’s Mongolia-set ÖNDÖG which premiered late last week, are films I admire but can’t bring myself to love. It comes close in the first case, though, as Alper has crafted a cryptic, metaphor-laden moral drama that awards those patient enough to work through the layers, and which also just looks sensational. Check back for more thoughts on individual comp films in my awards prediction piece later this week.