One of the reasons why Brazil is so short on cinema screens for such a huge country is because many were converted into evangelical churches.

For the first time since prayer beat popcorn in the 1980s, the faithful might be regretting their choice of building.

As of February, the country has its first big-screen evangelical smash in the shape of Os Dez Mandamentos (The 10 Commandments). It has earned $21.7m there after six weeks, more than Ridley Scott's stab at the Moses story two years ago.

The new film managed more pre-sales than The Force Awakens, and has currently been seen by eight million - not far off the country's all-time record for a Brazilian film, 11 million for 2011's favela action sequel Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

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It is surprising that Brazilian cinema did not see the light earlier.

Historically a bastion of Catholicism, the country has seen an extraordinary mushrooming of its Protestant population over the past 30 years - the majority of whom are evangelical or Pentecostal.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UKCG) set up the first evangelical TV channel in 1990 after buying out the struggling broadcaster Record.

But 25 years on, Os Dez Mandamentos - edited down from 176 episodes of the massively successful telenovela - is its first attempt to break into cinema.

This move up the media food chain is a worrying development for those who think the evangelical movement already exerts too much sway on Brazilian politics. The current president, Dilma Rousseff, enjoyed the endorsement of the UCKG's billionaire founder and self-appointed "bishop", Edir Maçedo, during her 2014 re-election campaign.

But Os Dez Mandamentos, and its tacky televisual transposition, doesn't sound as if it's much good for cinema or finer religious sentiments, either. Writing for Globo - admittedly Record's main rival - critic André Miranda commented on the depressingly Manichaeistic strain of Christianity pushed in the film, warning cinema-goers to get with God, or else. "His voice is heard at various times, and its tone is similar to those supermarket announcements advertising new promotions: 'It's time to come back, Moses.' 'Head for the meat section - there's 20 percent off on a kilo of duckling.'"

'Cheap populism' 

Maçedo, not a man slow to put religion, commerce and showbiz into a blender, specialises in this kind of consumer come-on. Os Dez Mandamentos, whose lavish sets cost a record $230,000 an episode, is a gaudy fictional extension of the $300m Temple of Solomon replica in São Paulo which serves as HQ for the church, a prime piece of theatre itself.

The series' soapy intrigues and smouldering, kohl-eyed clinches are typical of Record's output. With the channel's roster of telenovelas, sex-spruced reality TV and true crime-fixated journalism, critics often accuse Maçedo of cheap populism and lowering the tone. There may be worse in his closet: the UKCG has been repeatedly dogged by corruption and money-laundering charges.

Those probably won't get an airing in O Bispo, a biopic of Maçedo rumoured to be Record's next foray into film production.

The audience is certainly there, but it's not quite clear - with a second season of Os Dez Mandamentos due to start in March - whether we're about to see a wave of Brazilian evangelical cinema.

There has been a sporadic drip of religiously themed hits over the past decade, though not from the Pentecostal camp: a 2003 biopic of Mary attracted 2.3 million admissions, while one of popular spiritist medium Chico Xavier managed 3.4 million in 2010. Walter Salles, still Brazil's biggest directorial name, is developing a Noah's ark animation.

But any difficulty with getting religious material in cinemas is probably subsumed into the Brazilian industry's broader problems with recognition for homegrown material of any kind: no local films at all have featured in the annual top 10 in two of the past five years.

'Playing the messianic long game'

The manna of film finance rains down far more readily in the US, where faith films have been riding high over the past decade.

Risen (or "CSI: Judea", as its tale of a Roman sceptic trying to track down Jesus has been dubbed) is the latest from Sony's Affirm Films subsidiary, which specialises in Bible-belt-friendly entertainment. It's the biggest current player in the Christianity cottage industry that sprung up in the wake of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Some, such as the smalltown mystery Heaven is For Real ($101m worldwide) and Christ biopic Son of God ($67.8m) - both from 2014 - have been moderate successes.


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The Muslim world is starting to tap the devout dirham at the box office, too: Majid Majidi's Muhammad biopic, pioneering in its partial depiction of the Prophet, is at $40m Iran's costliest film ever. And in Turkey, the controversial Gülen movement has had a hand in two recent films chronicling overseas volunteers running faith schools in Bosnia, Senegal, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Record, and Brazil's other aspiring religious filmmakers, will need better offerings than repurposed TV if they want to turn cinema into a pulpit. The blend of Bible-sourced and contemporary stories served up in the US would be a good start. Brazilian evangelism - successful because it is less ceremonial and more responsive to modern whims than the Catholic Church - is perfectly placed to spirit up the latter.

What's properly challenging, though, is creating something with true spiritual impact; something playing the messianic long game, in it to be remembered.

Os Dez Mandamentos might get away with its Nile valley-Copacabana mash-up on TV, but the big screen has a way of ruthlessly exposing not just naff verisimilitude, but artistic paltriness too. Like the faithful, it needs directing. Say what you like about The Passion of the Christ, there's an insatiable creative vision behind its dogged materialism and obsession with physical pain. Majidi's project - though being in Persian will limit its wider impact - has moments of surging metaphysical power. Maybe cinema will tell us if Brazil's evangelicals are in touch with that higher plane. 

Source: Al Jazeera