For those of us lucky enough to have received our primary education in the highly esteemed institutions run by Christian educators, God may have already seemed like a joke at one point or another. In The Brand New Testament, the most recent film by Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael, it seems like He is also incompetent. In a turn for the dark humor, Van Dormael shows the work of God (played by Benoît Poelvoorde)as the work of a goofy yet cantankerous loner that gets a kick out of torturing the human race (err… did I mention the director is Belgian?)
God lives in a high-rise in Brussels, and why not since Brussels seems to be the seat of political decisions for the EU. Maybe it drew on the mystical power of God as well? God’s son, JC is now dead, and Van Dormael lets us know that he was killed by the same people whom he was trying to help. It is a world where no good deed goes unpunished, reminiscent of a world created by Larry David. Nowadays, God lives with JC’s little sister Ea (Pili Groyne) and her mom (Yolande Moreau). It is these two female characters that are more merciful, showing that female agency is perhaps the most redemptive force against all odds, the all-mighty God.
The somewhat transgressive story is wrapped up in a fantastical world that perhaps could’ve been dreamt up by Terry Gilliam, with some hints of irony and dark humor thrown in. Ea is the driving force behind this film; she takes a hold of dad’s computer and lets the entire population know the date of their death, via text. This is perhaps the most subversive of the moves, as the little girl grows tired of the power her dad has amassed and takes it upon herself to settle the score and undercuts it, setting people free to decide their last days rather than fearing God.
There is also a big difference between the young woman and her mother. While Ea decides to take it upon herself to be the disruptive force, her mother is almost mute throughout the film. Has she been under the ruling fist of God for too long? There seems to be a meta-narrative here. Unfortunately, it’s never fleshed out enough to make this a truly irreverent film.
As if the entire story wasn’t far-fetched enough, Van Dormael takes us through an even more bizarre plot when Ea runs away. In a surreal turn of events she enlists the help of some disciples. It doesn’t make much sense to summarize here, but let’s just say that the odd list of characters make for obvious slapstick comedy that may turn off some viewers attracted by the film’s subversive themes. In the mix are Catherine Deneuve, who plays an unsatisfied married woman, Martine, who ends up falling in love with a gorilla. There also is a serial killer and a transgender boy.
There does not appear to be an obvious reason for these characters, other than a few laughs. This is perhaps where the comedy of errors takes over, and the original idea of the transgressive film mellows out. The humor in itself is not offensive but also not at the level of a Monty Python sketch. The film feels more absurd than irreverent and, at least for me, left me eager for more of the political satire and less of the slapstick.
The Brand New Testament runs 116 min, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated. It is currently playing in our South Florida area at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus and the Tower Theater Miami. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., please visit this link. A screener link was provided by Music Box Films for the purposes of this review.