Movie Review: The Gospel according to a 10-year-old

‘The Brand New Testament’ is a divine comedy.

‘The Brand New Testament’  (photo credit: PR)
‘The Brand New Testament’
(photo credit: PR)
Hebrew title: Comedia Elohit
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael With Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve
Running time: 113 minutes
In French and German.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The film The Brand New Testament is a strange, funny and original movie from Belgium that works on many levels. It can be seen as the fantasy of a 10-year-old girl who imagines a way to free herself from her drunken, abusive father and her frightened, ineffectual mother. It’s also a charming fable about some of the deepest questions in life and an absurdist critique of organized religion. Most of all, it’s an engaging and playful movie that will stay in your head a long time after you’ve seen it.
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael, best known for the 1991 comedy Toto the Hero, it focuses on Ea (Pili Groyne), a girl who lives in fear of her father (Benoît Poelvoorde). He spends his time drinking, screaming at Ea and her mother, and working on his computer, which he keeps in a locked office.
But in the conceit of this movie, her father is God, her mother is Mary, her brother (who exists as a figurine that periodically comes to life) is Jesus, and she is Jesus’s sister. I know how silly this must sound, but when you’re watching it, it’s lively and fun, with stunning imagery and great music.
Angry at being locked up and beaten, Ea discovers a way to escape from her home, through a washing machine that stretches to the outside world, in a scene reminiscent of Being John Malkovich. But before she leaves, she sneaks into her father’s office and outfoxes him by hacking into his computer and letting people all over the world know the date when they will die, via SMS.
Her father has determined everyone’s lifespan, but the fact that humans don’t know what he knows — the date they will die — gives him power. Once people, especially those who have little time left, learn of their destiny, they are free to do what they want with the time they have.
Once Ea is out, she decides to write the Brand New Testament and to gather disciples. Her brother, Jesus, recommends that she find six people to follow her.
With his 12 disciples, they’ll have 18. Their mother thinks this is a special number, since there are 18 players on the field in a baseball game, and she is a baseball fan.
Up to this point, I had wondered how the movie could sustain itself.
It settles down into six stories about the disciples Ea chooses, which are more conventional than the rest of the movie. Each disciple deals with the revelation of the date of his/her death in a different way. One walks away from his hated job to follow a bird he sees in the park, which is pleasant to watch but you can see where it’s going. Catherine Deneuve turns up as a bored, bourgeois married woman – much like her character in Belle de Jour 40 years later — who is set to die long before her husband and dumps him for a very surprising partner.
Many movies have played with the idea of an alternate vision of religious iconography. In the 2001 movie Don’t Tempt Me, heaven was filmed in black and white as a nightclub, presided over by a god played by Fanny Ardant in an evening gown. Hell had many incarnations, one of which was a prison cafeteria where no one ever got to eat, Penelope Cruz played a dark angel, and an exploitive CEO was reincarnated as an undocumented migrant worker from Africa. That was not as interesting a movie as The Brand New Testament, but it had a similar focus. The Brand New Testament also brings to mind the original Bedazzled (1967).
The Brand New Testament, which is on the short list for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (the five nominees in this category, along with all the others, will be announced in early January), may sound precious, and if someone described it to me, I’m not sure I would want to see it.
But if you can overcome any reservations about the plot, you will see a movie that is quite wonderful.