“Testament” a divine comedy
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.”