Arts MOVIE REVIEW

The Brand New Testament surprises with a refreshing twist on religious satire

God is a pajama-wearing grouch in this irreverent and whimsical dark comedy

Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau, and Pili Groyne in The Brand New Testament. ©Kris Dewitte/Courtesy of Music Box Films

★★★★✩
The Brand New Testament
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael
Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Pili Groyne, Yolande Moreau, Marco Lorenzini, Laura Verlinden, François Damiens, Serge Larivière, Catherine Deneuve, Didier De Neck, Romain Gelin
Not Rated
Now Playing

If you were told the exact date and time of your death, what would you do? Would you change anything? For the characters in The Brand New Testament, these hypothetical questions become a reality when phones and inboxes everywhere suddenly play host to such tantalizing information, courtesy of God himself. Or, more precisely, courtesy of God’s omnipotent desktop computer database.

Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael establishes an intriguing premise in this French language film. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is real and he lives in Brussels with his wife (Yolande Moreau) and daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). Interestingly enough, God is an insufferable curmudgeon who verbally accosts all those around him and takes great pleasure in tormenting his creations. He has no inherent power though; his godly control is instead derived externally through the use of an old desktop computer that takes each keystroke and converts it into an immediate reality. In a particularly amusing scene, God sniggers to himself as he types out a few new, frustratingly relatable “Laws of Universal Annoyance:” “The other line always moves faster,” and “The required quantity of sleep is 10 more minutes.”

The film follows Ea, God’s disgruntled 10-year-old daughter, who is of course, Jesus Christ’s (JC for short) younger sister. Groyne instills each dead-eyed stare with both weariness and willfulness, playing the role with a quiet gravity that belies her age. Her voice-over narrations are pitch perfect, too, in their monotonous tone and quintessentially blasé teenage demeanor.

Fed up with her father’s touchy temper and frivolous abuse of humankind, she breaks into his office and, in an act of revenge, sends the death dates to everyone on Earth. To evade the inevitable backlash, Ea escapes the apartment and sets out to follow in the footsteps of her more famous sibling by seeking out six new apostles and writing a Brand New Testament.

With her enraged father in hot pursuit, she meets an eclectic menagerie of quirky characters who deal with the knowledge of their impeding deaths in a multitude of ways. There’s Victor (Marco Lorenzini) the loveable and dyslexic homeless man who Ea enlists as her scribe, Aurélie (Laura Verlinden) the beautiful woman with a silicon arm and a lonely heart, François (François Damiens) the man fascinated with death and killing, Marc (Serge Larivière) the sex-obsessed man who becomes a porn voice actor, Jean-Claude (Didier De Neck) the office worker who sets off on a journey to the arctic, Martine (Catherine Deneuve) the housewife who turns to a gorilla to assuage the loneliness of her loveless marriage, and Willy (Romain Gelin) the young victim of munchausen by proxy who secretly wants to be a girl.

The film pokes cheeky fun at its religious source material, taking the familiar and old, smashing it apart with a sledgehammer, and then stitching the pieces back together into something sharp and new and darkly funny. In this reality, God wears dirty flannels and pajama pants, Jesus Christ escaped a troubled home life through a laundry machine portal, and apparently the word of God can only be received by those with email or text. There is nothing too sacred that cannot be rewritten, recast, or reinvented. In fact, this audacity to challenge assumptions is precisely what gives the film it’s magnetic watchability.

The resulting cognitive dissonance between deeply entrenched cultural expectation and the off-kilter absurdity that unfolds across the screen is like the flaming car wreck on the side of the road that no one can look away from. But these incongruities are more than just flashy sideshows; they set the tone of the film as one of a dysfunctional fairytale – whimsical yet surprisingly dark – and mine laugh after laugh with each subsequent improbability. The Brand New Testament pushes boundaries in its comedy by probing at our own discomforts. It is worth noting that the lengths to which the film goes to shock or satirize may seem blasphemous to some.

At times, the film seems to forget its tenuous contract with reality and fails to provide clear or logical motivations for character action and plot development. Why is Ea so intent on finding these six apostles? What’s the point of it all? Certainly there are times when the aimless and purposeless are appropriate devices, but when applied too liberally, the story itself can begin to feel meaningless. Thankfully, the film commits only minor transgressions and for the most part succeeds at finding threads of humanity in its delightful chaos.

The Brand New Testament isn’t afraid to ask big questions and it somehow finds a happy medium between meaningful allegory and comedic whirlwind. By taking the divine and untouchable and imbuing them with the flaws and failures of humanity, The Brand New Testament holds a mirror up to our own doubts and imperfections. Every time Ea and her apostles stare deeply into the camera and, in turn, into the eyes of the viewer, the film dares to ask: what do life and living mean to you?