“Tes­ta­ment” a di­vine com­edy

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - Un­rated. 115 min­utes. By Michael O'Sul­li­van

Drama. In French with sub­ti­tles.

For sheer in­ven­tive­ness of story, lan­guage, vi­su­als and theme, “The Brand New Tes­ta­ment” is, quite nearly, a di­vine com­edy. Based on the cheeky premise that God is nei­ther a form­less, eter­nal Spirit of Love nor a bearded old man on a throne of clouds, but a dys­pep­tic mid­dle-aged al­co­holic in a soiled un­der­shirt (Benoît Poelvo­orde), this fan­ta­sia by Bel­gian film­maker Jaco Van Dor­mael (“Toto the Hero,” “Mr. No­body”) de­lights and makes you think — even if its em­pha­sis is, un­apolo­get­i­cally, on the for­mer.

It’s the kind of movie that in­cludes the de­scrip­tion, in voice-over nar­ra­tion pro­vided by God’s pre­co­cious 10-year-old daugh­ter Ea (Pili Groyne), of a man who smells like “a dis­tillery where a camel had died,” and then pro­ceeds to show you — be­cause why not? — the de­com­pos­ing car­cass of a drom­e­dary, ly­ing amid casks of liquor.

That level of morbid hu­mor is out­done when Ea, to get back at her abu­sive fa­ther, sends text mes­sages from the old man’s com­puter to ev­ery soul on Earth, re­veal­ing the ex­act date and time of their deaths, and then runs al­ways from home — via a mag­i­cal, Nar­nia­like por­tal that runs be­tween the fam­ily wash­ing ma­chine and a Brus­sels laun­dro­mat.

What kind of movie is that, ex­actly? I’m not sure. Morbid com­edy? Med­i­ta­tion on hap­pi­ness? The­o­log­i­cal al­le­gory wrapped in­side a silly joke? Maybe a lit­tle of all three. What­ever it is, it’s highly watch­able, funny and ul­ti­mately very, very sweet, de­spite touches that are, by turns, sur­real, sopho­moric and even poignantly sad. How would your life change, the film asks, if you knew how much time you had left? And then it blows a big, fat rasp­berry. “Tes­ta­ment” doesn’t take much se­ri­ously, in­clud­ing its own es­cha­tol­ogy.

As the ti­tle im­plies, the film is struc­tured around the writ­ing of a new book of sa­cred texts, com­piled by a home­less man (Marco Loren­zini) who hooks up with Ea as she wan­ders around Bel­gium, ob­serv­ing the lives of six strangers as she col­lects their sto­ries and their tears in a small glass vial. (Ea can’t cry, she in­forms us, in just one of the film’s many richly al­lu­sive im­ages that play with no­tions of a com­pas­sion­ate yet largely hands-off de­ity.)

The strangers that Ea en­coun­ters are all miss­ing some­thing, in one case quite lit­er­ally. Aurélie (Laura Ver­lin­den) has a pros­thetic arm, but the other apos­tles, as Ea calls her new friends, are strug­gling with less lit­eral feel­ings of lack: lone­li­ness, anger, a sense of be­ing trapped in a dead­end job or, in the case of a lit­tle boy who has only a few days to live (Ro­main Gelin), a gen­der iden­tity that doesn’t suit him. Cather­ine Deneuve plays a woman who leaves her hus­band for a go­rilla, in a sub­plot that doesn’t en­tirely work. (But then again, in the con­text of ev­ery­thing else, it doesn’t en­tirely not work ei­ther.)

In Van Dor­mael’s ir­rev­er­ent re­vi­sion­ism, it is the spirit of the God­dess in the uni­verse — a sense of end­lessly play­ful cre­ativ­ity — that is what’s best and most pow­er­ful about the world we live in.

Pili Groyne in “The Brand New Tes­ta­ment.”

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