Written by: Thomas Gunzig, Jaco Van Dormael
Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Imagine you found out the exact time you were going to die. What would you do? Would you quit your job and take that long awaited round the world trip or finally seek true love? Or would you throw caution to the wind and decide to live the rest of your life more dangerously? These are the questions that drive many of the characters in The Brand New Testament, a darkly comedic look at existence and religion in the form of a satirical religious parable. However, what begins as a highly original premise settles in quite quickly to become something a little less exciting; an episodic fairy tale that while clever is lacking a momentum that would make it essential viewing.
The Brand New Testament takes place in the centre of the universe, aka Brussels, where God (Benoît Poelvoorde) lives in a tower block, joyfully tapping away on his divine computer, making life miserable for everyone on the planet. Tired of her father’s sadistic torturing of humanity, God’s daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) decides to follow in her brother Jesus’s (David Murgia) footsteps and go down to Earth and gather apostles to produce a new testament of the Bible. To achieve this she decides she needs to perform a miracle, so she hacks into God’s computer and informs the entire human race of the exact time and date of their deaths, then descends to the material plane to gather her followers and create a new paradigm.
From its opening moments, co-writer/director Jaco Van Dormael sets the tone for his blackly comedic fairy tale by casting God as a slovenly grotesque; a booze swigging, chain-smoking, dressing gown wearing divine degenerate whose happiness is derived solely from the misery of all human beings. He is the creator of the entire universe, yet he focuses all his attention on the smallest inconveniences that make life just that little bit too hard for all involved, and the casting of veteran Belgian actor Poelvoorde brings this wonderfully realised villain to life in all his disgusting glory. He is reminiscent of the petty, insecure God from Garth Ennis’s Preacher comic books, only with more alcoholism and schadenfreude thrown into the mix.
It is a pity then that the film cannot quite pay off the wonderful premise. Once Ea leaves the confines of the flat and begins her journey through Brussels to gather her acolytes, the film separates into little episodes, each showcasing the origin story of her apostles and how their discovery of their death dates changed their lives. From here on the film settles into an exploration of free will, fate and identity but the comedy moves aside for the majority of the film as it settles into more of a modern day fairy tale that is more quirky than outright hilarious. Although there are still a few sporadic laughs, particularly at the expense of Poelvoorde’s God who follows Ea to Earth and falls victim to all the inconveniences he took so much pleasure in creating.
There are some interesting character ideas at play in these aforementioned episodes however; the young boy who finds out he only has months to live decides he wants to see out his final days as a different gender, the serial killer in waiting who realises he can go on a killing spree without any ramifications as his victim’s deaths had already been determined, or the ageing trophy wife (played by the great Catherine Deneuve) who discovers true love in the arms of a circus gorilla. Ea teaches them all to listen to their inner music and in doing so finally find a more fulfilling path in their increasingly finite lives. This is all touching stuff, but unfortunately it all comes off as a little too twee to be overly engaging, especially around the halfway mark when the episodic nature of the film begins to drag a little.
A great central premise and terrific performances, particularly from Benoît Poelvoorde, prop up an ambitious film that has a lot to say about life, the universe, and everything, but cannot quite get over the finish line. Despite the film not being all that much more than the sum of its parts, it is easy to see what director Van Dormael was trying to achieve. The Brand New Testament raises some interesting philosophical questions about the nature of existence and does leave one pondering the choices made in life and how those choices would change given the opportunity. Shades of the two Terrys (Gilliam and Pratchett) can be felt in the acerbic humour and attempts at iconoclasm but Van Dormael’s film cannot quite reach the heady heights of its forebears to become an instant classic.