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Brand New Testament, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Light satire with something stronger possibly hidden beneath."
3 stars

A couple days after seeing it, "The Brand New Testament" seems a bit more clever in its satire than it did in the moment, when its loose storytelling can make it seem to have only the vaguest idea where it wants to go with its critique of religion. It takes a moment or three to realize that chaos and lack of direction are part of the point, although filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s fondness for the weird doesn’t always translate into the dry, absurdist wit it’s going for.

It posits that, in addition to his well-known son, God also has a daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), about ten years old and very much not impressed with her father (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is a petty tyrant, abusive to both Ea and her mother (Yolande Moreau) within the bounds of the three-bedroom apartment with no windows or doors to the outside that they call home. Fed up, Ea has a talk with her brother “JC”, who creates a portal in the washing machine that she can use to escape to Brussels, where she seeks six apostles to help her write a “Brand New Testament” - and on the way out the door, she sneaks into God’s computer room and sends everyone on Earth a text message with the dates and times of their deaths before locking him out of the system, ensuring that he’ll pursue her.

Despite Ea’s dry narration and a performance by Pili Groyne that’s pretty good even if one’s French is limited or nonexistent - she captures the self-doubt and often-smothered rage of the girl in muted but unmistakable fashion - Ea spends much of the movie not being very interesting herself. She’s a necessary construct, a way to get the death-dates out and an excuse to have six or eight unusual people narrate their stories, but she doesn’t seem to be learning or growing that much as she explores the human world, and the times she affects the story later on are often rather random, a quick way to accomplish the connections that the screenwriters want to make. Until she meets her sixth apostle, a boy her own age named Willy (Romain Gelin), she’s much more unformed idea than character.

But the movie needs Ea, because Jesus has too specific a place in Christian mythology and this story’s take on God would be far too miserable a personality to have at the center of the action. For a while, it’s easy to read Ea’s family as perhaps a normally abusive one, exaggerated by her imagination and unworldliness, but Van Dormael mostly seems interested in flipping that analogy around: Rather than an abusive husband and father feeling like God to his victims, he plays God as the abuser, demanding loyalty while spending his time dreaming up new ways to make people miserable, terrified that he’ll lose the one source of his power. Interestingly, Van Dormael never really makes him a true threat with supernatural powers beyond his mortal analogs - though there is clear spirituality in the world he imagines (whether represented by the curious Ea, the good-hearted but diminished JC, or Ea’s mother, implied to be some sort of pagan goddess now all but forgotten), the wrathful, patriarchal god is presented as a concept at the end of its usefulness.

Benoit Poelvoorde dives into this miserable characterization without much concern about offense, and it’s a precisely managed comic performance, arrogant and forceful but also kind of oafish. It stands out in a sea of characters mostly trying to find some sort of small happiness in the midst of situations that initially seem to offer more specific tragedy than freedom. Most find their own way to show some sliver of possibility sneaking in, with Catherine Deneuve netting special notice for playing perhaps the film’s most absurd situation utterly straight and Marco Lorenzini getting plenty of laughs as the befuddled homeless man brought in to serve as Ea’s scribe. Given the very specific tone than Van Dormael targets for most of the film, the nuance the various performers use to separate themselves from each other is impressive.

That tone is not exactly bone-dry, but it does rely heavily on jokes whose punchline is basically being kind of peculiar, with a side of mildly blasphemous absurdity. Most every scene has something that is at least worth a chuckle, with plenty getting much more, though there are a fair number of threads that march along with no payoff, though they are at least generally low-key, though Van Dormael makes sure never to stay too long in a spot where nothing is really happening and cut to the occasional bit of pure (if sometimes violent) slapstick. That relatively sedate approach can often be a weakness, especially toward the end, when the final resolutions seem to come out of nowhere and seem a bit too fanciful for the weird yet oddly pointed material that has led up to it.

It’s too entertaining to come off quite as a fizzle, but it also comes across as suggesting that the filmmakers’ thoughts on this material aren’t really that sophisticated, that Von Dormael has come up with a few winkingly sacrilegious jokes but not real thoughts on the matter. Ultimately, I do think that it is better than that, and even if it’s not brilliant, it’s still amusing, which may be all that the filmmakers want or need "The Brand New Testament: to be.

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originally posted: 12/25/16 10:30:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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