THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT Blasphemes Its Way Into Our Hearts on Home Media

“What if God was an asshole?” isn’t the most original of questions to base a film on. Hell, you could probably fill a not-insubstantial TV season with all the various Star Trek episodes that used that basic premise. But if The Brand New Testament, new to home media, is playing with familiar tropes, it pushes the material to such blackly comic extremes that you might never look at a Bible the same way again. Or a gorilla, for that matter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Brand New Testament posits a world in which God first created Brussels, then began looking for life to fill it. Chickens didn’t work, giraffes were no fun, but then God created people (Adam here depicted as an awkward-looking schlub discomfited by the censoring black box over his junk), which led to God discovering that it was really, really fun to fuck with people.

Now, God controls the world via a crummy old desktop computer through which He writes out edicts of banal human misery, like the phone ringing as soon as you get in the tub or toast always landing jelly-side down.

When he isn’t inflicting suffering on millions for petty laughs, God is just a generally shitty person. He’s physically and emotionally abusive to His wife (a goddess who was long ago cowed into silence) and His daughter, ten-year-old Ea, played by Pili Groyne (Jesus is referred to Ala, your cool older brother who bailed on the lame family and moved the opposite coast).

Ea has had just about enough of God’s shit, though, so one day she sneaks onto the computer and releases the death dates of the entire human race, so everyone knows exactly how much longer they have to live, and no one has to live with uncertainty anymore. Then Ea gets the hell out of dodge and goes out into the world to assemble six disciples (the way she arrives at this being the desired number of apostles is the kind of wacked out logic I couldn’t begin to describe) and craft a Brand New Testament. Hey, that’s the title of the movie!

The easiest word with which to peg Brand New Testament is ‘whimsy’, and that would be somewhat justified. In terms of look and tone, you can feel the same creative DNA as the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry. One set piece in particular, involving the disastrous attempt by a woman with an expiring timer to death-proof her apartment, has the feel of a gag right out of Amelie.

Director/co-writer Jaco Van Dormael wrings some major laughs by taking his What If? scenario to its wildest extremes, including a running gag involving a young man who knows he has decades to live and decides to push his luck to crazier and crazier ends.

But that same deadpan tone provides protective padding around which Van Dormael can spin his philosophical musings. If people truly didn’t have to spend their lives weighed down by the uncertainty of when the certainty of death will arrive, how would they react? Some of the examples he dramatizes are small and intimate and only just north of our day-to-day lives, while others barrel into out-and-out absurdism, including the most bizarre use of a gorilla onscreen since Senator Al Franken watched one rectally violate the principal from The Breakfast Club.

And running underneath all of this is the most blasphemous strain of the film, depicting an irate God charging through His creation in search of his daughter. God suffers humiliation after humiliation at the hands of His own rules, only compounded by his asshole-ish streak. He’s such a prick that a PRIEST beats the shit out of Him.

Benoît Poelvoorde is a hoot as the big man, turning into the skid of God’s most reprehensible behavior. The worse God behaves, the more fun Poelvoorde seems to be having, and Van Dormael, in turn, seems to take special joy in heaping Job-esque misery on his head, turning the Almighty into a punching bag for humanity’s pettiest problems.

All this is good fun, but Brand New Testament (like many of the films of a similar tone) does start to run out of steam as it heads to its conclusion. There’s a late-in-the-game attempt to dilute the caustic reality of the film with some notes of sweetness, and despite everyone involved giving a game attempt, this material doesn’t really play.

But the biggest knock against Brand New Testament is that, well…there doesn’t seem to be much point to it. Given the sheer number of weighty topics the film covers (destiny, death, gender, faith, love, the nature of God) you would think a satire of this nature would need to have a cogent and coherent perspective. But Brand New Testament really doesn’t, instead seeming to rest on the laurels sheer naughtiness.

For all the craft and care that went into the film, Brand New Testament ends up having all the depth of a bored kid in Sunday school scrawling tits on the Virgin Mary.

Setting aside those reservations, I can still happily endorse The Brand New Testament, if only because the sheer naughtiness imagined above really is something. The entire cast is dialed into the same weird tone, and Van Dormael manages to wring laughs both subtle and barn-door broad.

While you may end up wishing for something a little more substantive, The Brand New Testament is still well-worth the look.

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