In theology, there’s something called “the problem of evil.” Why, if God is all-good and all-powerful, do so many horrible things happen in the world? The Brand New Testament offers a compellingly straightforward answer: God isn’t all-good. In fact, God is a raging asshole.
“God exists. And he lives in Brussels,” the opening narration informs up. That’s Ea (Pili Groyne), God’s preteen daughter, also the film’s protagonist. Specifically, God (Benoît Poelvoorde) lives in a rundown flat in Brussels. He’s a balding, pot-bellied brute in a bathrobe and slippers, who rules his abode with childish tyranny. His wife (Yolande Moreau) never speaks – she only does the chores and organizes her prized baseball card collection. Jesus has long-since escaped his father’s rule and vanished, which is a source of simmering resentment.
Ea herself is an embittered young woman, but also fiercely intelligent and self-contained. While screenwriters Thomas Gunzig and Jaco Van Dormael — the latter of whom also directed the film — never require much of Ea beyond maintaining that stance, Groyne pulls it off with pluck.
One day, God accidentally leaves the door to his office unlocked, and Ea slips inside, discovering to her horror how God runs the universe. He creates Brussels wholesale: Empty buildings and libraries full of books with nothing but blank pages. Initially, giraffes wander the streets, and chickens sit in the movie theaters. Van Dormael’s direction favors long takes and a calm camera that rarely moves; the cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne relies on crisply defined images and a greenish color palette that somehow manages to be both clinical and warm at the same time. It’s a subtle approach, but The Brand New Testament is better for it — particularly in these early scenes of creation, where it lends a detached and bemused air.
Eventually, God hits on creating humankind: “All those he could watch as they struggled,” Ea observes acidly. He builds a miniature Brussels in his office by which he can manipulate the real world: He lights houses on fire, creates rainstorms with a hose, and stages plane crashes. He writes thousands of laws of “Universal Annoyance” on his computer — whenever a body is immersed in a bath, the phone will immediately ring, for example. The deity giggles in vicious glee at all as this.
When he realizes she snuck into his office, God flies into a fury and beats Ea with bis belt. That’s when she decides to do something: Ea steals the keys to the office, sneaks in, and sends every person an alert on their smartphone letting them know how long they have left to live. Jesus (David Murgia), who visits his sister as one of those miniature statues of Christ giving the blessing, is overjoyed by this: “The old man will lose all credibility!”
There are no doors in or out of God’s flat, but apparently you can escape to the outside world — Being John Malkovich-style — through a tunnel in the clothes washing machine. Ea’s plan, concocted with her brother, is to write a new testament. Jesus had 12 apostles, but their mom always thought 18 was a better number (it’s the players on a baseball team) so Ea will find 6 more apostles. And this time, the testament will be written in their own words and experiences. So Ea sets off into the world, with God in hot pursuit.
All of this, remarkably, occurs in the first 10 to 20 minutes. The rest of the film is taken up by Ea’s quest to find her apostles and record their stories, and each one gets a 10-to-15 minute segment. There’s Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a beautiful but sad woman who lost her arm in a childhood accident; Martine (Catherine Deneuve), who fights against age and a loveless marriage; Jean-Claude (Didier De Neck), a lonely man in his 60s caught in the drudgery of a corporate office; François (François Damiens), who decides to start randomly picking people off with a rifle once everyone’s death is announced; Willy (Romain Gelin), a boy plagued by illness who decides he wants to be a girl; and Marc (Serge Larivière), who was smitten by woman after woman as a boy, and now spends his days in a haze of porn, prostitutes and nude dance shows — until fate intervenes. Then there’s Victor (Marco Lorenzini), a homeless man who Ea recruits to do the actual writing, who is the most fully-realized of the bunch.
Unfortunately, this is also where The Brand New Testament goes off the rails. There are moments of delight, of darkness, of grief, and of supreme oddity in all this. But the episodic structure robs the film of forward momentum. Nor is there any concrete plot. The basic conceit here — that God is a vicious prick, that Christ’s ministry and death on Earth was an act of rebellion, and now God’s daughter will get her own chance to finish her brother’s work — is a potent one. There’s a remarkable scene where God gets into an argument with a priest over Christ’s commandments. “I hate myself,” God sneers. “I would have said hate your neighbor as you hate yourself!” But without a strong story, The Brand New Testament never investigates this idea to spin it out or draw any conclusions. It just coasts on the strength of its conceit, and winds up no where in particular.
The performances are good: Damiens and Larivière are particularly strong as the reformed killer and the sex maniac, respectively. And Lorenzini is a humane and humorous presence throughout as Victor. The music by An Pierlé — infused with classical pieces — is lovely. And the whole thing is enjoyably weird and lackadaisically philosophic in that uniquely European way. I’m just not sure it’s enough to add up.