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The Brand New Testament, written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, offers a drastic modern re-imagining of biblical mythology, but apart from a few sporadic sparks of creativity, forgets to actually do anything interesting, memorable or worthwhile.
God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a cruel, vulgar man who lives in an apartment in Brussels with his meek wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). God is an abusive father and husband and he spends most of his time in his office, entertaining himself by making the lives of humans miserable from his computer, which is the source of his power. One day, Ea decides she’s had enough, breaks into his office and sends out messages to the entire human race telling them the exact date that they’re going to die – triggering a sequence of events that will culminate in the creation of a Brand New Testament.
Being subversive for subversion’s sake is the name of the game when it comes to The Brand New Testament. The movie delights in showing us an absolutely horrible God who screams, beats children, steals food and mocks priests – but doesn’t do anything with that setup. For example: there’s a scene in which God comes to Earth to find and punish Ea. His computer is locked, so he doesn’t have any actual power and immediately after he arrives, he’s beaten up by a group of thugs that mistake him for a bum. There are lots of ways to approach that scenario – you could go for comedy, irony, tragedy. It could be a crowd-pleasing moment to see this wretched interpretation of God get his teeth kicked in, or a turning point for the character as he starts to change his ways. In the movie, it just happens – it’s not funny, sad or interesting. God gets taken to the hospital where he yells at some doctors and that’s about it.
The most interesting thing in The Brand New Testament is the idea of everyone on Earth knowing exactly when they are going to die. It’s kind of a key plot point, yet the movie spends far too little time on it, which is a shame, because it’s by far the most memorable aspect of this snoozefest and the closest it comes to funny or even thought-provoking. From life insurance companies disappearing practically overnight to social media celebrities doing incredibly dangerous stunts because they know they cannot die, every time The Brand New Testament shows us a glimpse of how the world reacts to the so-called DeathLeak feels like a breath of fresh air that doesn’t last nearly as long as it should.
The majority of the movie is spent on Ea interacting with the six random people she’s chosen to be her apostles. They each get a vignette that explains their backstory and personality, with the key word being “explains”. There is an excessive amount of narration in The Brand New Testament, so much so that it really does feel like a book – and not a particularly interesting one. Dialogue is heavy on purple prose and flowery language that does evoke some interesting imagery, but gets tiresome and repetitive very quickly.
It doesn’t help that five of the six apostles are incredibly uninteresting. The movie frames itself around them completely in the second half, which is where it goes from kind of dull to practically unbearable. The only apostle that’s slightly worth talking about is The Killer, who’s decided to start shooting people now that everyone knows when they’re going to die – the way he sees it, if he misses, then it wasn’t their time, and if he hits, then he was carrying out a divine will. It’s an interesting idea that the movie abandons almost right away in order to make room for a stilted romance subplot with a different apostle.
The Brand New Testament is too flat to be entertaining, controversial, thought-provoking or even watchable. It’s a clip-show of creative visuals and somewhat interesting and subversive ideas, stripped of meaning and impact, laid bare and propped up with excessive purple prose. It seems almost proud of accomplishing nothing, which is bizarre. The first half may elicit a chuckle or two, while the second will probably put you to sleep.
The Brand New Testament is out now on DVD.