Monday, December 05, 2016

The Brand New Testament: God and Man in Brussels

Surveys suggest Americans are more religious than Europeans, but you can find conclusive proof in the movies. When God appears in American films, we cast the likes of George Burns and Morgan Freeman, but the Belgians opt for Benoît Poelvoorde. We’re not being snarky here. Viewers are meant to be under-awed and even contemptuous of him in Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

God according to Van Dormael and Poelvoorde is neither infinite in his mercy or a benignly disinterested watchmaker. He is a Belgian grump, who regularly devises new laws to make mankind miserable, like dropped toast always lands with the buttered-side down. He is a domineering sod with his wife and daughter Ea, frequently becoming borderline abusive. Yes, there was once a prodigal son, but nobody talks about JC anymore.

After one particularly dramatic flare up, Ea strikes back at her father, texting everyone on Earth the date of their death and then locking the mid-1990s vintage PC on which her father does all his deity business, before running off the earth in search of six apostles of her own. It turns out, this leaves her father at a distinct disadvantage. While Ea and JC could perform light miracles, their father was completely dependent on his computer. When he follows Ea into terrestrial Brussels, he is just crank with a bad temper claiming to be God.

There is a reason for those six additional apostles, beyond the fact it allows Ea to recruit six colorful characters, several of whom are played by some of Francophone cinema’s top stars. That is indeed Catherine Deneuve, as the recently spurned Martine, who finds the romance of her life with a gorilla. Frankly, it is really no big deal, considering how often she played opposite Gérard Depardieu.

For further French star power, there is also François Damiens (Delicacy, Les Cowboys) as his namesake assassin, whose line of work becomes almost absurdly irrelevant when everyone knows their expiration date. Of course, Poelvoorde hams it up shamelessly as the prickly creator, while Yolande Moreau is painfully mousy as “the Goddess,” even when it is her time to shine.

The broad strokes of BNT might sound like cloyingly cutesy blasphemy, but it has a darkly cynical attitude nobody will confuse with the Oh, God movies. Yet, somehow it mostly manages to avoid direct critiques of any particular religion or denomination. Basically, Van Dormael and co-screenwriter Thomaas Gunzig offer up some warmed-over Gaia-friendly feminism, in between the gallows humor, porn-related subplots, and sex with primates.

In fact, all the edgy, risqué, and potentially offensive material is pretty funny. The film only really gets tiresome when it wimps out and gets politically correct and sentimental. Highly episodic in its structure, the film largely plays like a series of sequential comedy sketches rather than a narrative to emotionally invest in, but at least it delivers the laughs. Recommended for those not put off by the premise, The Brand New Testament opens this Friday (12/9) in New York, at the IFC Center, just in time for the Christmas season.