Biopic of Brazil evangelical bishop breaks box office record

SAO PAULO — A biopic about the man who founded one of Brazil’s largest evangelical churches has sold more tickets than any other film in recent memory in the South American country. But some have accused the church of cooking the books.

The film tells the story of Bishop Edir Macedo, who founded the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the 1970s. Macedo is a powerful and controversial figure in Brazil who owns a media empire and has been dogged by accusations of malfeasance — allegations that the film portrays as a plot by the Catholic Church and Brazilian establishment to limit his power.

A company that measures media penetration, comScore, says the film “Nada a Perder” — “Nothing to Lose” — sold more than 11.7 million tickets between its release March 29 and Thursday. That makes the film, which is being released Friday in the United States, the most attended since 2002, the first year for which comScore has Brazilian box office data. The next closest film — a 2016 movie about the life of Moses — sold more than 11.3 million tickets.

But the Brazilian press has accused the church of inflating sales by buying up tickets itself. The Folha de S.Paulo newspaper sent reporters to movie theatres during the film’s opening weekend and said the screening rooms weren’t full, despite the blockbuster ticket sales. The church denies that and, in turn, accused the Brazilian media of disseminating “fake news” to damage its reputation.

“The Universal (church) never bought tickets for the film ‘Nada a Perder,’” the church said in a statement to The Associated Press. “That said, part of the success of the film — and therein lies the hatred of some segments of the press — comes from the initiative of volunteers from Universal and other denominations and religions, who have organized so that the largest number of people possible can see the film.”

It added that other religions do exactly the same thing: recommending to their followers things they believe in.

Paris Entretenimento produced the film, and the church says it was not involved, but it has vigorously promoted it on its website as has Macedo’s Record TV network.Another part of Macedo’s media empire, Record Filmes, has helped to screen the film in prisons and for remote communities, including indigenous groups.

The second most-attended film since comScore started keeping track is “Os Dez Mandamentos,” which Record Filmes produced. The third film is “Tropa de Elite 2,” the sequel to a popular Brazilian film about gang violence and police corruption in Rio de Janeiro. But comScore data shows that “Nada a Perder” may not reign for long: “Avengers: Infinity War,” which opened April 26 in Brazil, has more than 10.4 million ticket sales so far.

Luis Fernando Rodrigues was among five people who saw “Nada a Perder” at a movie theatre in Sao Paulo on Thursday afternoon.

“This film is part of a holy war” over the image of Macedo and his church, said the 57-year-old architect. Even the debate over how many people saw the film is part of that battle, he said.

Gesturing at the empty theatre, he added: “We don’t know if it’s because of the time of day or if it’s a manipulation.”

Controversy has long surrounded Macedo, a colorful character who has won both adoration and notoriety for taking on two of Brazil’s most entrenched institutions: the Catholic church and the Globo media empire. Brazil is the world’s most populous Catholic country, but evangelicals are on the rise: They account for one in five people — up from one in 20 a few decades ago — and evangelical lawmakers make up a powerful voting bloc in Congress. Macedo’s Universal church has been one of the motors of the group’s growth.

Macedo was raised a Catholic but the movie shows him searching for spiritual meaning elsewhere. In the film, his family experiments with traditional healers to cure his sister’s asthma and finally joins an evangelical church. But he ends up rejecting that church as too elitist and finally founds his own.

Over the years, he and his preachers have drawn the ire of Catholics for railing against their “idolatry” of saints and calling the pope the Antichrist.

But they have also drawn fervent followers, who have turned the Universal church into a powerful player in Brazilian politics and culture. Macedo’s nephew and a bishop in the church, Marcelo Crivella was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and the Universal church says it has 9 million followers in 110 countries, 7 million of whom are in Brazil.

Macedo himself has been dogged by accusations of financial crimes and exploiting his followers. He was briefly jailed in 1990s amid accusations of extortion, tax evasion and fraud — an episode portrayed in the film as proof of the power of his message and the great lengths that the Brazilian establishment will go to silence it.

In 2011, federal prosecutors accused Macedo of false representation, larceny by fraud, money laundering and forming a criminal association — all of which he denied. A judge rejected some of those charges, and the statute of limitations expired for others. According to the Sao Paulo Federal Justice system, the money-laundering charge is still pending.

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