TO WHAT extent do we accept the faith of our forebears in contrast to whatever meanings we ourselves superimpose on the universe?
Theories of religious development have been widely examined in recent generations by the likes of James Fowler, John Westerhoff, et al., but never so amusingly as in The Brand New Testament (Cert. 15), now on release.
Using the kind of techniques better known in films such as Being John Malkovich, Amélie, and the Matrix series, and looking back to his own 1991 debut, Toto the Hero, the director, Jaco Van Dormael, make his interest in the subject clear to see.
A ten-year-old girl, Ea (played by Pili Groyne), is our primary narrator. “God exists and he lives in Brussels.” Ea is talking about her slob of a father (Benoît Poelvoorde), who delights in confounding the human race with petty and serious hindrances to contentment. Laws of Universal Annoyance include books consisting entirely of blank pages and dishes that only ever get broken after (never before) having been washed.
Jesus, his absent son, is doing his best, with mixed results, to put things right. Now Ea, after giving her parents the slip, wants to produce a revised edition of the world; a brand new testament. Her inspiration is da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Following the number of players in a game of baseball, her aim is for there to be a total of 18 apostles in the picture.
The recruits are as motley a bunch as those chosen by Jesus: a sex maniac, a bored housewife, a disabled woman, a sickly boy, someone who hates his life, and another obsessed with morbidity. The gift that she bestows on each of them is to tell them exactly when they will eventually die.
This concentrates their minds wonderfully. Ignorance of when life would end had held them hostage. Now they move into new, higher stages of faith development. Whether horrified or liberated by such knowledge, they are spurred into behaving positively, if somewhat unconventionally. Martine, the housewife (Catherine Deneuve) renounces her uncaring husband in favour of tenderly embracing a gorilla. The terminally ill boy chooses to become the girl that he always thought he should be.
The nub of the film is contention with a model of God, using black comedy to demonstrate its obsolescence. The better way that Ea shows us requires standing up to a Father not worthy of the title. When he is dethroned, it likewise releases God’s divine but downtrodden wife (Yolande Moreau) to take over the office and redesign Creation along more benevolent lines. God is dead. Long live God.
Samuel Johnson couldn’t take philosophy seriously because his own cheerfulness kept breaking through. In The Brand New Testament, the chuckles provide the very means whereby philosophical thinking becomes possible. Here we have, rolled into one, Nietzsche doing pratfalls, Sartre wielding a custard pie, and Woody Allen stand-up theology that any religious-studies department could be proud of.
This is a trenchant examination of what it could mean to be truly alive by identifying the right kind of God to believe in.