The Brand New Testament

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Laura Clifford 
The Brand New Testament

Robin Clifford 

God exists.  He lives here in Brussels.' his young daughter Ea (Pili Groyne, "Two Days, One Night") informs us.  We see him (Benoît Poelvoorde, "Man Bites Dog") in bathrobe, socks and slippers sitting in a large room walled with filing cabinets at his PC.  His first creative efforts involved giraffes walking city streets and cinemas whose patrons are chickens.  When he got around to making man in his own image, he set them against each other in his own name.  Ea's had enough of her dad's misogynistic meddling, so she first releases humankind's mortality dates, then sets out to find six more apostles with her scribe, Victor (Marco Lorenzini, "Twin Sisters"), who will write "The Brand New Testament."

No one can accuse cowriter (with Thomas Gunzig)/director Jaco Van Dormael ("Toto the Hero," "Mr. Nobody") of not having a vivid imagination.  This sly religious satire will delight anyone who's ever wondered how God can allow such misery in the world with its 'All you need is love' feminist coup.  From the time that Ea's older brother 'JC' (David Murgia, "Bullhead") advises her to get six more apostles because dad thought there should be enough for a hockey game whereas mom (Yolande Moreau, "Séraphine") thinks there should be enough for a baseball team, to the washing machine portal to Earth that opens into a laundromat, Van Dormael finds laughs and ingenious visuals in every aspect of his film.

In the opening section titled 'Genesis,' we learn that God not only instigated war on Earth, but amuses himself by creating disasters like airplane crashes and instituting rules like always being in the slowest checkout line.  JC, who's been relegated to life as a statue atop a wardrobe (presumably for going against dad's wishes), admires Ea's pluck - 'To give man awareness of his own death - awesome!'  Meanwhile on earth, as people see their clocks tick down, many try to test its inevitability, Kevin (Gaspard Pauwels, "Mr. Nobody") reappearing throughout, his daredevil stunts becoming more and more extreme.   After Ea's 'Exodus,' the next six chapters are given to her apostle search.

Aurélie (Laura Verlinden, Oscar nominated short "Death of a Shadow") is a beautiful woman who's given up on love because of a missing limb.  Jean-Claude (Didier De Neck, "Toto the Hero") is a lonely office drone, Marc (Serge Larivière, "Séraphine") a sex maniac, François (François Damiens, "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies") a serial killer who gets in on testing mortality.  Martine (Catherine Deneuve) is an abandoned wife and the last is a little boy, Willy (Romain Gelin), who wants to be a girl.  Ea not only listens to each to find their signature music, but each finds wondrous fulfillment because of her intervention.  One falls in love with Xenia, a German (Anna Tenta) who mangles trite sayings into sweet reinventions, another follows a bird to the Arctic Circle.  Martine finds love with a gorilla. But Ea's plan doesn't come into full fruition until the inadvertent action of her mother, who, realizing what she's done, makes beautiful music of it.

Van Dormeal's despicable God is played with impish, cranky glee by Poelvoorde, while Moreau projects naivety as a shield against his oppressiveness.  Young Pili Groyne is preternaturally confident and enlightened.  Each of the new apostles, seen in an updated version of da Vinci's Last Supper, progress from downtrodden or unfeeling to fully, joyously alive.

Belgium's submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Academy Award is a marvel, where a woman sees her disembodied hand dance on a table like the Addams's Thing free of his box or nature astonishes with starling murmuration.  "The Brand New Testament" is cheeky, wonderful and wise.

Grade:  A-

God (Benoit Poelvoorde) lives as a writer with his wife (Yolande Moreau) and daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne) in an apartment in Brussels. His writing, though, affects the entire world with his decidedly mean streak and wreaks havoc instead of doing good. Ea is tired of his meanness and plans to run away, but not before she sabotages his all-powerful computer, in “The Brand New Testament.”

Words of warning: if you do not have a sense of humor and are rigid in your religious faith, DO NOT SEE THIS FILM! You will be offended and will likely go viral against this charming and scathingly funny satire. For the rest of us, DO SEE THIS FILM!

“The Brand New Testament” is only the fifth film from Belgian writer/director Jaco Van Dormael whose debut was the internationally acclaimed “Toto the Hero (1991).” Here, he and co-writer Thomas Gunzig create (pun intended) a world where God lives as a mortal but wields his divine powers via his home computer. Unfortunately, this power is used to abuse, causing all the suffering in the world because he can, from flood to hurricane to terrorist bombings and more. This is a spiteful and narrow-minded God.

But, God is also a family man and not a very good one. His wife suffers his abuse, as does 10 year old Ea who has spent her entire life in the confining apartment. One day, while God is napping, she steals the key to his always locked office and lets herself in. She finds his computer and sees the cruelty of the Creator. Ea confronts her father and he beats her for going into his office. “See what you make me do!” he shrieks at the girl.

This final confrontation between father and daughter sparks action in Ea. She sabotages the omnipotent PC, packs a bag and escapes the confining apartment through a tunnel hidden in the washing machine. After a decade of confinement and a mean father, she is free.

This is where “The Brand New Testament” splits its story. One has Ea, following the advice of her brother J.C. (David Murgia), seeking out six additional disciples in a journey to rejuvenate the world her father has tried to destroy. This is a semi-serious look at faith and I will leave it at that.

The other half of the story follows a vengeful God who pursues his daughter through the washing machine tunnel and into the streets of Brussels where his search begins. This part is pure slapstick with Benoit Poelvoord giving a clown-like performance as a God not prepared to face the “laws of Universal Annoyance” that he made to screw with mankind. He hoists himself on his own petard when he runs into all those God-made laws, like, “a piece of bread with jelly will always fall on the floor jelly side down” and “the other line always moves faster.” The gags come fast, furious and are very satisfying.

“The Brand New Testament” is a brand new look at God and religion. It will likely offend some but others will appreciate the keen wit, excellent cast (including the iconic Catherine Deneuve as one of Ea’s disciples who falls in love with a gorilla), and often dark, always funny, humor. I give it an A-.
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