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The Brand New Testament

Year: 2015
Production Co: Terra Incognita Films
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Writer: Thomas Gunzig/Jaco Van Dormael
Cast: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve

Belgian filmmaker Jaco van Dormael crafted one of the best films of 2009 (the whole 2000s, actually) with Mr Nobody, and the way the film languished with some distributor before being dumped in America with no fanfare or marketing and bombing completely was a crime.

The Brand New Testament is Belgium's official entry for the 2016 Best Foreign Picture Oscar, so there's hope his genius will be more widely recognised this time around (although part of the joy of his films is feeling like you've unearthed a classic all by yourself).

If you loved Mr Nobody you'll feel no small measure of trepidation sitting down to The Brand New Testament. As Shane Carruth's Upstream Color and Greg McLean's Rogue showed us, it's very hard to catch lightning in a bottle the second time around.

So it's with not just a sigh of relief but an all-too-rare joy to discover The Brand New Testament is every bit as funny, sad, inventive, rich, lush, beautiful and imaginative as van Dormael's last movie.

The on-paper plot is almost the least outstanding element, even though it's certainly something you've never seen before. God exists – played by Benoît Poelvoorde as a suburban slob with a balding pate and slopping around in a dirty undershirt, he created the world and everyone in it from a dingy flat where he lives with his mostly silent, ineffectual wife (Yolanda Moreau) and his two children, Ea (Pili Groyne) and JC, a small ceramic statue of Christ.

He runs the universe from a locked room at the end of the hall that contains a 90s-era PC on a crappy desk, the walls lined with filing drawers stretching up towards infinity, containing the notes on everyone who's ever lived.

And in a hilarious characterisation that's sure to get the film picketed if it does get any kind of profile in America, God's a complete bastard. He treats his wife with an appalling lack of respect, has no patience with his cute and curious 11 year old daughter Ea, and whereas it was his son that preached love and brotherhood, God spends most of the day writing rules like how the toast always falls jam-side-down if you drop it, giggling nastily at the suffering he visits on humankind.

Ea's had enough. To get revenge on him for the way he mistreats everyone – from her to humanity – she decides to run away, go to Earth and write a Brand New Testament about the goodness of people and the liberation and joy available to them if they only open their hearts to it.

Her last act of rebellion before sneaking out is to break into her Dad's office and send a message to every man, woman and child on Earth, telling them how much longer fate has determined they have to live. The path to Earth then involves climbing into the washing machine in the laundry and inching down the seemingly endless barrel where it comes out in another machine in a Brussels laundromat.

Ea asks the first person she sees – a homeless guy – to be her scribe, and together they go in search of apostles who'll tell their stories, her companion transcribing it all into what will become The Brand New Testament.

Ea crisscrosses Brussels finding her new followers – a professional killer, a businessman who lets a flock of birds lead him to the end of the Earth (literally) in search of his true destiny, a middle aged woman at the end of her rope in a loveless marriage, a young boy with a terminal illness and a beautiful girl who lost an arm in a train accident.

God hits the roof when he finds out, immediately crawling into the washing machine after her (and taking forever when he gets stuck in the pipe). He emerges into the Brussels night cold and hungry, without any of his usual powers, and provides the film's funniest moments when he's arrested or ushered gently into a church homeless shelter, still abusing everyone around him and demanding respect because he's God.

It's far more a comedy than Mr Nobody was in both the premise and the execution, but it's so full of emotion of every possible kind it defies genre categorisation. It seems to be about everything – almost about life itself with all its humour and heartbreak.

Symbols are mixed in with allegories and you don't see such absurdities treated with as much reverence (or which cause you to feel so much about them) from many other directors. Maybe David Lynch is the only other filmmaker who could depict a woman in love with a gorilla, a boy in a dress, an assassin and a woman with a prosthetic arm sitting on a beach waiting for the end of the world and make you really care.

There's a wide-eyed, fairytale quality to the proceedings even when the content – with its share of sex and violence – is decidedly not the stuff of fairytales. Of all his skills, van Dormael's strongest might be that every scene feels like a lush, gorgeous dream sequence even when the content isn't exactly dreamy material. He's like a grand old storyteller sitting by a fireplace with a leather bound book and a twinkle in his eye, the qualities of storytelling more important than mere facts.

There's an eclectic soundtrack full of heart-rending classical music and pop songs, and van Dormael's soundscape is as lush as his visuals – the motif where Ea can hear the song that plays with each character's heartbeat is charming.

He isn't above using computer animation, but where most of our exposure to it as audiences is the kind where superheroes or natural catastrophes destroy cities, it has as much soul in The Brand New Testament as the characters. And still, despite such restrained and nuanced use of CGI, van Dormael understands the ultimate movie special effect is the human face, and he loves nothing more than when the person behind it is feeling something.

It's at once about the whole world and the innermost intimacies we all keep locked away, and the film manages it with nothing more than everyday blocking, fine acting, great casting (Groyne as Ea is particularly adorable) and a decent amount of post production. But The Brand New Testament somehow transcends the mere filmmaking crafts that put it together, becoming much more than the sum of the parts and wielding more heart and imagination than Hollywood usually manages in an entire year of output.

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