Even non-Christians must allow that the New Testament is a formidable document. So any attempt to write what Jaco Van Dormael's comedy calls Le tout noveau testament (The Brand New Testament) requires careful deliberation. But the Belgian writer-director and his co-scripter, Thomas Gunzig, just didn't think very hard about their undertaking. The result is a satire whose whimsies and sight gags frequently click, but whose philosophical impact is negligible.
The setup is the best part. In the beginning, God (Benoit Poelvoorde) created Brussels, but struggled to devise the right creatures to populate it. There's a lovely moment in which the city belongs only to giraffes.
Eventually, God invented humans. Now, dressed in a ratty bathrobe, he spends his time tormenting them with death, disease, and petty annoyances. He tracks his victims on an pre-Windows PC, and lives in a large but shabby apartment he never leaves. (If this is Heaven, it bears some resemblance to the Hell of Sartre's No Exit.)
His wife (Yolande Moreau) regularly sets a place at the table for their son, JC (David Murgia), although dad insists the wayward kid is never coming back.
Van Dormael's protagonists are usually child-like or actually children, so it's hardly surprising that the task of fixing creation falls to God's 10-year-old daughter, and the movie's narrator, Ea (Pili Groyne). She tires of dad's grumpiness and cruelty, and — with a little help from her older brother — manages to escape the family home.
First, though, she sends everyone a text message that reveals the moment of their upcoming death. The news rattles most people, yet liberates some.
What about people without cellphones? They barely exist in this fable, whose God apparently lacks dominion over regions much beyond the Benelux countries. Thus when Ea hears people's "inner music," all the tunes are from the dead-white-European-male canon. There's no Fela Kuti or Tuvan throat singing in Van Dormael's narrow universe.
JC suggests that Ea compile a new testament, containing the insights of six apostles. (Twelve was too many, he's come to realize.) So the girl enlists a homeless man (Marco Lorenzini) as her scribe, and begins a quest to find the six.
They are a young woman whose beauty is flawless, save for her missing arm (Laura Verlinden); a disgruntled desk jockey who wants to return to his previous adventuring (Didier De Neck); a strip-club regular who never got past his first unrequited crush (Serge Lariviere); a man who tries to turn his lifelong homicidal fantasies into reality (Francois Damiens); a woman who dumps her husband for a gorilla (Catherine Deneuve); and an abused, dying boy who wishes to spend his last days as a girl (Romain Gelin).
Aside from becoming Ea's apostles, these six experience fulfillment of various sorts. The outcomes of their bizarre stories are generally prosaic and unprovocative, and most often plop lazily into the rom-com basket.
God manages to chase his daughter onto Brussels' mean streets, and the story is punctuated by His travails. But the film is carried by the remarkably poised Groyne, which is appropriate, since Ea turns out to be more powerful than she realized.
As for her mean dad, he suffers a suitably unhappy — and suitably Eurocentric — fate.
In gender-studies terms, The Brand New Testament chooses matriarchy over patriarchy. But all the movie really concludes is that girls are nicer than boys. As a gospel, that's hardly new.