What if God were a hook-nosed, oily goblin of a man who only created the world so he could torment it for his own amusement? That’s the initial question, at least, in this one-of-a-kind fantasy comedy from Belgium.
Directed, co-produced and co-written by Jaco Van Dormeal (Toto The Hero), The Brand New Testament unfolds with the imagination, iconoclastic humour and surrealism of Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry.
Ea (Pili Groyne) is the 10-year-old daughter of God who, after years of torment at the hands of her permanently angry and abusive father, decides to escape from her plane of existence (here imagined as a grotty flat with 1980s decor) and head to Earth. As a final act of defiance, Ea uses her father’s computer to tell every human being on the planet how long they have left to live – smash cut to hordes of people receiving text messages saying things like, “You have 54 days to live,” “You have 12 years to live,” and so forth.
Having escaped to Earth (via a washing machine, naturally), Ea then decides to write a new section of the Bible, and employs a dyslexic vagrant named Victor to help her set down the thoughts of six new, randomly-selected apostles – among them a would-be assassin, an unfulfilled wife of a wealthy businessman played by Catherine Deneueve, and a bespectacled, 40-something sex-addict. Unfortunately for Ea, God’s decided to head to Earth, too – and he’s not in the best of moods.
As you’ve probably gathered, The Brand New Testament isn’t the easiest of films to describe in a way that makes sense. I haven’t even mentioned Ea’s mother, who barely speaks, enjoys cross-stitching and collects baseball cards. Or the evident delight the director takes in taking Deneuve – the French star and director’s muse who’s starred in everything from Bunuel’s Belle du Jour to Polanski’s Repulsion – and have her character fall in love with an ape. Yes, an actual ape from a circus.
The Brand New Testament is so full of imagination and curious imagery that it almost feels constrained by its 112-minute duration; in an alternate reality, there’s probably an entire TV series devoted to the idea of ordinary people reacting to the news of their date with death – some breaking down into an existential funk, others embarking on weird, hedonistic odysseys.. Here, the director effectively divides his film up into six little episodes, each a short film devoted to one of the ‘apostles” Ea’s chosen.
Every one is funny and poignant in its own individual fashion. One concerns a lonely middle-aged man who follows a flock of birds to the end of the Earth. Another is about a young boy who, discovering he has mere hours left on Earth, decides he wants to switch genders.
All of this might hint at a film frustratingly in love with its own quirkiness, but there’s an irresistible conviction and craft to The Brand New Testament that makes it difficult to resist. Every sequence seems to introduce something new, beautiful or just plain odd to admire: God’s desolate home office, flanked by index files stretching up to infinity. Flocks of birds dancing in the sky. A tiny statue of Jesus that miraculously comes to life.
It also helps that the humour is as broad as it is surreal. There’s a throw-away reference to Jean-Claude Van Damme that actually has a pay-off which is impossible to see coming. God’s tribulations on terra firma are also a sight to behold: having engineered all kinds of mundane annoyances for us mortals to suffer through – the pain of a headache or a sprained wrist, the frustration of a slice of buttered bread landing sticky-side down – it’s highly satisfying to see the ornery old deity choke down a taste of his own medicine.
The Brand New Testament is, in short, a gleeful slice of heresy. The notion of a God who’s both evil as well as good goes back centuries, of course, though it’s difficult to imagine too many 12th century philosophers dreaming up a balding old curmudgeon who torments his subjects via computer.
Van Dormeal’s film will probably be an acquired taste for some (particularly if you’re of a religious persuasion, or worse, from Uzbekistan), but for anyone who loves their comedies dark and their dramas darkly fantastical, The Brand New Testament is a funny, sublimely acted treat. To borrow a phrase from another modern iconoclast, Homer Simpson – it’s positively sacrilicious.
The Brand New Testament is out in UK cinemas on the 15th April, and is playing at the Glasgow Film Festival.