Anyone who has played a God game like Sim City or Black and White has a sadistic urge to make the lives of the digital beings hell. That is how the filmmakers behind the Belgian fantasy-comedy The Brand New Testament sees God as they take aim against religion.
In The Brand New Testament God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is real – he lives in an apartment in Brussels. He is a drunk who watches sports, dominates over his wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) and spends most of his time in his Terry Gilliam like office finding ways to make his creation’s life a misery. After a vicious beating, Ea sets out to get revenge against her father, leaking the time of death to everyone on Earth and locking his computer, taking away his power. Ea sets out to see the world for the first time and find her own apostles.
The Brand New Testament is a strange beast of a film, it has an interesting premise for a magical-realist story, and it had a terrific opening act as God and his family live in squalor and Ea sets out to get her revenge. It was a great way to open the movie as God plays with humanity, giving us morals the minor nuisances that are a part of the daily grind of life. This is counter-balanced by God giving Ea a severe beating and Ea announcing to the camera her intent to destroy her father. This act of the movie had a beautiful climax of Ea feeling the rain for the first time.
After this initial 30 minutes The Brand New Testament goes down of a route of directionless wandering. Here Ea goes and finds her apostles, six people she randomly picked who live in the Belgian capital. It is this portion of the movie where people speak to the camera, philosophizing about the new world order and many of them facing their destined date of death. What it boils down to is that even if you think certain things are beyond our control we should live our lives to the fullest; yet the way its presented is like the worst stereotypes of French cinema (I am aware France and Belgium are different nations) – angsty people talking to the camera. It works for Ea since she’s the main character but this approach loses its impact when it’s used to meet new characters.
Some moments are genuinely funny, having a dark edge because of the deaths and attempts of deaths, like one woman finding out she only has minutes to live and gets rid of every possible threat and gets killed anyway while a running gag involving one man testing fate. These moments are outweighed by the movie’s attempts to use surreal imaginary which is enough to constitute a joke – the worst offender is one of Ea’s apostles, Martine (Catherine Deneuve), who kicks out her husband so she can have an affair with a gorilla. Even in a movie where God exists with an all-powerful computer and everyone knows their time of death this idea is out of place and unfunny.
Even the film’s use of music is a mixed bag. Ea has the ability to hear people’s heartbeats as music and which was an excuse to hear some famous pieces of classical music and great for fans, adding some emotional resonant. It is a powerful way for Ea to connect with her apostles. However, The Brand New Testament was too reliant on comedy music for its jokes, having no confidence that jokes could not stand on their own. Jokes ended with a trumpet sound which was saying ‘there’s the punchline, now laugh.’ It’s lazy!
Pili Groyne was terrific in the lead role as God’s daughter, giving a mature performance considering her young age. She was a warm, welcoming presence that people could open up to. Groyne’s two standout scenes were the ones straight after her beating where she speaks to the camera about her desire for revenge and a montage where Ea spends her time with a boy who has only a week to live.
The Brand New Testament has a terrific opening that could have worked as a short film but was hampered by its lack of direction in its second and third act and not as insightful or funny as it thinks it is. Groyne is a young actress with a great future ahead of her if she decides to stay in the profession. She was the bright spot of the movie.