The most powerful figure in the world is a miserable old bastard who manifests a startling contempt for humanity and an utter lack of moral qualifications and who spends each day dispensing tyranny and abuse with a few ill-advised keystrokes. It may not sound like the stuff of great escapist entertainment at the moment, but this is the basic premise of “The Brand New Testament,” a clever exercise in gently heretical whimsy from Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael.
In the grand satirical tradition of Monty Python and Kevin Smith before him, Van Dormael takes gleeful yet disarmingly genial aim at the God of the Judeo-Christian universe – reimagined here as an angry, foul-mouthed schlub in flannel pajamas and played with an unflattering sneer by Benoit Poelvoorde. As shown in the movie’s amusingly grim creation myth (titled “Genesis,” in the first of many biblical riffs), this God inhabits a grotty Brussels apartment with his submissive wife (Yolande Moreau) and their 10-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), both of whom live in constant fear of his drunken fits of temper.
Ea’s older brother, the beloved and unambiguously named JC, left home years ago, though he remains the proverbial thorn in his father’s side. And it’s JC’s courage that emboldens his sister to stage her own act of divine intervention, breaking into her father’s all-powerful computer and – like a better-intentioned version of the serpent in the Garden of Eden – gifting humanity with the kind of eye-opening epiphany they were never meant to have. Knowledge really is power, and in this case, it provokes the whole gamut of human reactions, from liberation to despair to stupefied disbelief.
“The Brand New Testament,” for its part, puts across its mock-spiritual conceit with such quick-witted ingenuity and disarming good humor that believing it is surprisingly easy. Or perhaps it’s just entirely beside the point. At any rate, going along with the fun will certainly prove no chore for regular art-house fans of Van Dormael, who, over the course of three earlier features – “Toto the Hero” (1991), “The Eighth Day” (1996) and “Mr. Nobody” (2009) – has delighted in playfully repositioning the lines between fantasy and reality.
A genial mind-bender with an imaginative eye for both human eccentricity and arrestingly strange production design, Van Dormael particularly likes to explore the riddle of parallel identities, of roads not taken and experiences not pursued. “Mr. Nobody,” a rare English-language effort, was a feverishly imaginative Wachowskian tour de force starring a shape-shifting Jared Leto as a man facing three possible futures: “Cloud Atlas” by way of “Sliding Doors.”
Watch the trailer for “The Brand New Testament”
“The Brand New Testament” doesn’t have its predecessor’s visionary strangeness, and it’s much more insouciantly comic in tone. But within its more modest proportions, it is no less predicated on the question of whether human beings, given the right nudge, might be willing to consider an alternate narrative.
The movie explores this notion by sending Ea on her own world-saving mission, which will require her to track down six willing apostles of her own. Combined with the pre-existing 12, they will bring the total number of disciples to the magic number 18 – the cosmic significance of which will be explained in one of the movie’s better jokes (not including the recurring gag of new apostles being magically Photoshopped into “The Last Supper”).
Not included among Ea’s apostles is a homeless old prophet (Marco Lorenzini), whom she tasks with chronicling their journey in the form of a fresh Gospel account. As they make their way through Brussels, they must grapple with the realities of what seemingly ordinary people might be driven to do under extraordinary circumstances. Would men at war suddenly lay down their arms? Would a young boy dream of living as a girl for a change? Would Catherine Deneuve crawl into bed with a giant gorilla?
To quote the work of another of the cinema’s great comic philosophers, these are the wrong questions. But curiously enough, almost all of them lead to the same answer, and that answer turns out to be love. Again and again, Van Dormael delights in finding romantic solutions to existential problems, in forging the kinds of topsy-turvy emotional connections between his characters that enable them to overcome their natural impulses toward suspicion, hostility and even violence.
Much of the comedy in “The Brand New Testament’s” early stretch is predicated on the pessimism of Murphy’s law, which seems to govern some of God’s more sadistic decrees. (If you ever wondered why a dropped piece of toast always lands jam-side down, now you know.) But the humor deepens as it progresses, as Poelvoorde’s belligerent deity increasingly becomes a punchline and the performances of Groyne and especially Moreau, one of the most gifted performers in Belgium, slide gently to the fore.
By the end, this cheerfully blasphemous movie has become a pointedly hopeful vision of what life might be with the right girl in charge.
starring Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Jaco Van Dormael. Not rated. Running time: 1:52