Let’s get it out of the way from the start: The Brand New Testament is a sacrilegious, blasphemous film. But once you get past that, you may discover that this dark comedy speaks to us about finding love and joy in a world that is often defined by death.
The key premise is that God is alive—and living in Belgium. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is also a self-satisfied jerk who treats his wife and ten-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) with contempt. He spends his day in his bathrobe as he dreams up new universal “laws” to annoy us, such as that the other line always moves faster. One day, Ea sneaks into her father’s room and hacks his computer. To get back at her father for all he’s done, Ea texts everyone in the world with the date of their deaths. People react to this in various ways. How would you react if you knew you had another sixty years to live? Or only eight days?
Ea then sneaks out of the apartment and goes into the world to find some apostles. Her brother JC had twelve, but Ea’s only ten years old so she sets out to find six. First, she comes across Victor, a homeless man who becomes her scribe as she comes up with a new testament based on her soon to be found Apostles. Each one is making changes based on the information of their death date. We see their stories in chapters entitled “The Gospel According to…” There is a one-armed woman, a would-be explorer, a sex maniac, an assassin, a woman whose husband leaves her, and a boy who decides he’d like to live his last few days as a girl. As the stories blend together people find love and meaning for their lives. Meanwhile, God has come looking for Ea and must deal with all of the annoying laws he’s made, and his wife is busy cleaning the apartment and perhaps making some changes of her own.
The film is a heavily satirical look at religion, but through that satire some of the basic questions that people have about life and its meaning are brought forward. A key question is how do we view life differently in the face of death. If death is something close at hand, we may make different choices than if it is far off. For example, when the dates are sent out, wars come to an end because the soldiers realize that it doesn’t matter what they do. If they don’t kill the enemy, they will die anyway if it’s their time; if it’s not their time they can’t be killed. For one person who knew he had 62 years to live, he started doing increasingly more dangerous things just because he could.
The film also raises the question about how we want to picture God. Do we want God to be a benevolent dictator who decrees things to make our lives better? (That is certainly not this God.) Or do we want God to be some distant, impersonal force—the Deistic watchmaker who created the universe and lets it run? Sometimes we may well think that God is very much like the jerk that is in this film—who plays with us without really caring. There have been some very key thinkers who have held that God often is not very nice, especially when we look at disasters (which we term “acts of God”) or events like the Holocaust (which God never stopped).
I’m sure there will be some who will be offended by the very nature of The Brand New Testament. But like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, this film uses humor and even blasphemy to help us discover some important spiritual truths.
Photos courtesy Music Box Films