From a bare-bones plot description, you might guess that The Brand New Testament — which was nominated in the foreign-language category at the Golden Globes — is a juvenile exercise in blasphemy. But this comic film from Belgium, in which God is shown as a cantankerous slob, is more mischievous than malevolent, likely to offend only the humor-impaired.
It’s a freewheeling, live-action satire that could well have been animated, a quality (among others) that it shares with Terry Gilliam’s features. The filmmaker in this case is the Belgian Jaco Van Dormael, who first came to notice in 1991 with Toto the Hero, a good and original film about the life of an ordinary man.
Van Dormael’s Divine Being (portrayed with relish by veteran Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde) lives in a Brussels high-rise, spending his days in a ratty bathrobe in front of a computer cooking up spiteful rules to harass and humiliate his unfortunate creatures. Ever wonder why the other supermarket lines always move faster than yours? That’s just one of his malicious pranks.
Bearing most of the brunt of this crabby divinity is his mousy wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne, outstanding), who has had enough of Dad’s heavy-handed ways. (There’s also a son, called JC, but he had the sense to skip town years ago, which really irks the old man.)
Ea gets an unexpected chance to use God’s forbidden computer, and performs an act that changes the world (and that I will not spoil). She leaves the apartment (more rebellion), and Dad, fearing that he’s lost the upper hand with humanity, gives chase. She persuades a hobo to chronicle her adventures — the brand-new testament — and sets out to find six apostles. (Why six? My lips are sealed.)
God, who, by the way, is far from all-powerful, finds that on Earth, he’s in way over his head. Meanwhile, we get to know Ea’s six followers, whose lives are changed radically by what she did at the computer.
Among the apostles are a beautiful young woman with a prosthetic arm, a sexually frustrated man and an aging wife (Catherine Deneuve) who is being betrayed by her wealthy businessman husband. She takes a new lover in a sequence that is most definitely transgressive.
But much more of the filmmaker’s humor tends to the whimsical — at times it seems borrowed from a Wes Anderson picture. As the six “gospels” of Ea’s apostles unfold, there are touching moments of revelation and redemption, but the humor in the second half has much more of a scattershot feeling — not all of it works, and the finale strikes some cloying notes.
Not surprisingly, love is the answer to life’s shocks and disappointments, which Van Dormael believes deeply, but even here he can’t resist adding a little tweak. Reminded by a kindly priest that the basic command is to love your neighbor, the surly deity dismisses the idea, asserting that his son said too much stuff like that “on the spur of the moment.” Cheeky!
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The Brand New Testament
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Cast: Pili Groyne, Benoit Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve
Running time: 114 min.