If asked to picture God, most of us would conjure up images of a charismatic Morgan Freeman or a cantankerous Graham Chapman peeking out from behind a cloud to berate King Arthur. Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film, The Brand New Testament, challenges this by positioning God (portrayed with detestable aplomb by Benoit Poelvoorde) as a Belgian slob with anger management issues – and an unquenchable desire to see humanity suffer.
Dissatisfied with her father’s uncaring and cruel lordship over the Earth, Ea (portrayed by the superb Pili Groyne) takes matters into her own hands; she sabotages his outfit, recruits a handful of apostles, and sets about penning a “brand new testament” for the people of Brussels to live by.
The morbid humour and morose aesthetic may feel a million miles away from the sunny Garden Of Eden, but a deft screenplay from Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig finds room to inject gentle flecks of hope. The string of encounters (or “gospels”) that follow Ea’s flight into the world showcase the length and breadth of Van Dormael’s proclivity for mixing touching human stories with absurdist comedy and abstract visual metaphors. Whether it’s a life-long sex pest (Serge Larivière) pining after a childhood crush, or a bored housewife (Catherine Deneuve) committing adultery with a gorilla, Van Dormael’s eye for the unsettling and the striking never fails to disappoint.
The meandering second act might test the patience, but a sweet seaside finale sees everything tie together for a touching and suitably strange conclusion. The central message – what would you do if you knew the hour of your death? – is delivered in rousing fashion. If you can wrap your head around Van Dormael’s surrealist imagination, you’ll find a confounding and uplifting tale of love, compassion, and morality.