THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT is a clever and wise deconstruction of dogma and patriarchy. Taking as its premise that God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is real, but less than benevolent, it gives us the story of his other child, the one who didn’t get her own book and who doesn’t like the status quo and takes it upon her 10-year-old self to shake things up.
Her name is Ea (Pili Groyne), and this self-assured and opinionated girl lives in a rundown three-bedroom apartment in Brussels with her bored and chain-smoking father and her silent and baseball-obsessed mother (Yolande Moreau). Ea is never allowed to leave the apartment, nor is she allowed in her father’s office, where he takes out his ennui and dyspepsia on humankind by making up arbitrary rules about toast always falling jelly-side down and such. Life is hell for Ea, but, being a clever girl, she channels her unhappiness into a plan to add another testament to the bible. Aided by her older brother, JC (David Murgia), Ea steals the office keys as her father sleeps off a bender, texts all of humanity the date of their respective deaths, and escapes via the washing machine in search of the six apostles she’s chosen at random from her father’s files. For good measure, she’s also frozen the computer necessary for her father to continue his reign of terror on his creation.
With the help of Victor (Marco Lorenzini) a dyslexic homeless man as scribe, Ea visits each of her chosen apostles: an office-bound former adventurer (Didier De Neck) living a life of quiet desperation, a self-proclaimed sex maniac (Serge Larivière) suffering palpable loneliness, a frail boy (Romain Gelin) who longs to live his final days as a girl, a rich woman (Catherine Deneuve daring all and having it pay off) who finds fulfillment where no one expected, a solitary, emotionally dead beauty (Laura Verlinden) with a prosthetic arm, and a killer (François Damiens) whose planned killing spree comes to an abrupt halt. Ea records their musings and life stories, and reveals to them the music that they carry in their hearts while also sharing her own powers and limitations with neither hubris nor self-pity.
Filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael strikes a tone that is at once compassionate, melancholy, and wickedly funny. His God is deliciously imperfect. Aside from being ill-tempered and a very bad dresser, he populated the world with chickens and giraffes before discovering that human beings were more fun to taunt, and regularly beats his subservient wife and defiant daughter. The running motif of a young man assured of several more decades of life doing things like leaping from planes for the heck of it is a study in nihilism and denial that resonates beyond the black humor. Visually, Dormael finds a striking beauty in the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime, from the disturbing yet poetic accord struck between humans and animals, to the tender embrace Ea gives her homeless scribe a tender hug while describing both is foul stench and her wish that he was her father, to the graceful ballet of a disembodied hand that brings solace and longing to the person dreaming about it. And sometimes just the sublime, as the brings to life the metaphor of laughter sounding like seed pearls cascading on marble steps.
Van Dormael’s is an intelligent wit that is as sharp as it is scathing. He purveys a philosophy as iconoclastic as it is compassionate in its assurance that there are untapped capacities for good in people, if not deities, given the right conditions. And a little divine intervention.
THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT has a profoundly whimsical sense of poetic justice told in bright colors, sincere performances, and bracing social satire.