When a piece of toast falls on the ground, who made the law that it absolutely must land face down on the jam-and-butter side? God, of course. God in his wisdom also subjects us to tsunamis, plane crashes, and unimaginable suffering. If God were a nicer person, would life be less randomly cruel? More fair? More free? More delightful, God willing?
Playful, charming, and endlessly imaginative, The Brand New Testament poses these existential questions and many more, starting by imagining God’s vast powers stolen and redeployed by his stoic 10-year-old daughter. Exploring other worlds and wildly different possibilities, Jaco van Dormael’s film inhabits a Terry Gilliam or Michel Gondry zone. The difference is that Testament sheds the genre’s macho dystopianism to spirit us through alternate states with a wide-open heart and a supple spring in its step.
Unshaven, slovenly God (a louche Benoît Poelvoorde) dwells like a rat in a less-than-heavenly Brussels apartment, gleefully tormenting humanity from afar on his old desktop computer. God loves to spring nasty surprises, but he’s a sad figure in his own way. His fed up son left long ago (although events will soon find a wisecracking Jesus in plain sight), and God browbeats his dumpy, submissive wife and their lonely daughter, Ea (lovely Pili Groyne, resembling the young Bjork) in scenes that vibrate with real danger. Disgusted with Dad and worried about her own future, Ea strikes two decisive blows against the patriarch. One has a huge impact: Ea texts the whole world’s population the dates of their own deaths, setting off panic and reflection all over the globe. The second act of defiance more directly affects Ea’s own life, as she flees the household to fulfill her religious destiny.
Ea arrives in the midst of humanity confronting individual choices in the face of death. The film treats these moments with tenderness, absurdity, and antic black humor. After finding out their allotted time, some break free, some hold loved ones closer, and a cute young man guaranteed a long life hurls himself into swaggering kamikaze parkour. The film’s clever takes on pop culture include sendups of TV sanctimony and name-checks of the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Accompanied by a loyal vagrant as pal and notetaker, Ea recruits six apostles, all with their own poignant story: a porn addict, a one-armed beauty and her murderous swain, a man enchanted by birds, and a sweet little boy who wants to become a girl. Foremost among the disciples is a miserable trophy wife (Catherine Deneuve) who finally finds a special kind of love. I won’t tell you what the iconic star has to do here, but it will make you laugh out loud and convince you that Madame Deneuve is one of cinema’s all-time good sports.
Ea’s pilgrimage could veer into insufferable whimsy, and sometimes it skirts scarily close. But several sturdy guardrails keep the film from tumbling into the Valley of the Twee. One is that the plot stays tightly focused on Ea, her band and their fates. Another is a sense of danger that prevents the story from curdling into excessive sweetness; God has followed Ea, and he’s hell-bent on vengeance. His bitter pursuit of her adds a Night of the Hunter-ish frisson of fear to the magic. And finally, Testament delivers a sense of justice. Stripped of his powers, once-almighty God has to suffer like the rest of us from the rotten laws he has put in place. He also tumbles into a canal, gets beaten up by homeless people, and has to pick up that damn slice of bread and jam off the floor. Doesn’t it feel good to see a bastard get payback for a change, even if it’s God? Especially if it’s God.
When a new and unexpected set of divine rules takes over, The Brand New Testament treats us to some lovely glimpses of a world where we can truly be free: a bird lover conducts an undulating whorl of starlings against a twilight sky, the horizon is alive with psychedelic patterns, and a dancing severed hand communicates possibility and comfort. So many movie special effects just aim to wow you, but these visuals want to encourage you to imagine a life without limits. It’s a measure of the trust this deeply humanistic film has for its muddled, manipulated viewers: we, the wretched of the Earth, eager for God’s mercy, whether we believe in God or not.