God is a miserable, rumpled middle-aged man stomping around his Brussels apartment in pajamas and bath robe. He spends his days tormenting the human race, which he created specifically for that purpose. His son has run away from home and embarrassed his father, while his wife and daughter are prisoners in their own home. Until, one day, God’s abusive nature turns its focus from humanity to his 10 year old daughter Ea. She gets her revenge when she steals the key to his office and sends everyone on earth a text message telling them when they will die, then blocks her father’s access to his computer (the source of his power, still seemingly running DOS), and escapes to the real world to recruit six more apostles. The stories of those six as they navigate a life whose end date is known, and Ea’s quest to both lift up the world and escape her oppressive father, make Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament one of the most enjoyable films to air at BIFF in years.
The Brand New Testament is full of absurdity and tenderness, moments that are at once silly and touching. Ea is a remarkable girl. Her compassion for the slightly broken and mostly lonely apostles she collects would not be as believable in an older character. The gorgeous bombshell with one arm; the middle manager with an untapped love of birds; the sex addict who has never actually had sex; the murderous life insurance salesman; the aging trophy wife with an extreme case of “jungle fever”; and the sickly young boy who wants to be a sickly young girl are all depicted with compassion and warmth, each telling their own backstory until their true story as apostles begins. Perhaps the most love is saved for her scribe, Victor. Homeless and dyslexic, he is the first person Ea meets, and he faithfully records the wisdom of those who follow her.
The God created by Van Dormael, on the other hand, is pure id – a crass, petulant bully. Early on, we see God gleefully creating annoyances for his people, such as, “the other line always moves faster” and “toast always falls jelly-side-down.” Upon his arrival on Earth, having been mistaken for a homeless bum, God is sent to the emergency room, where he shoves the doctor for not giving him morphine, steals a slice of toast from a young girl in the waiting room, and promptly drops it, with predictable results. Later on, still appearing very homeless, God finds himself in the slow-moving line at a soup kitchen. Within minutes he has been pummeled by both the other patrons and the priest running the kitchen. Seeing this awful character fall victim to his own viciousness is really quite enjoyable, as long as viewers are receptive to blasphemy.
As the Belgian submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, The Brand New Testament is certainly deserving of recognition. Often visually stunning and creatively shot, I found myself too distracted to read the subtitles. There will be those who don’t appreciate the portrayal of God as such a buffoon, but for those willing to take things less seriously, the surreal silliness of The Brand New Testament is not to be missed.
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