Jaco Van Dormael’s latest feature film, The Brand New Testament, is a strange beast, part black comedy and part introspective study into the human condition. When summed up in this manner it sounds a rather specialist affair and the subject matter, imagery, and mixture of tones create an undeniably surreal experience. Despite all of its quirks though, The Brand New Testament is a film with a great deal of heart and for those willing to look past the oddities there is a great deal of substance beneath.
Van Dormael doesn’t shy away from alternative and potentially controversial angles of exploring religious dogma. The central character of Ea herself could turn a few heads, being the unknown daughter of God who sets out to become the second Messiah and correct the poor work of her father; God himself being a cruel, vindictive, abusive, and violent man.
The core of The Brand New Testament focusses around the part that religion plays in our modern life, asking many controversial yet important questions. If there is a God why is there so much suffering in the world, even amongst relatively normal day-to-day people? Could God even be responsible for such suffering? Is religion merely a manipulation of people’s fear of death for the purposes of control? The list goes on.
The role of religion is repeatedly questioned and challenged with the ultimate suggestion of the film seeming to be that if we hope to find heaven then the place to find it is right here, within ourselves and amongst those around us, not from some ethereal all-powerful manipulator. Whilst God sits at his computer atop a tower block cut off from the world, it is Ea who truly impacts on people’s lives by meeting and speaking with them in a meaningful manner, thus getting them to examine their own lives and where they are falling short.
Despite the subject matter The Brand New Testament always examines these issues with a deft humour, the kind that many of us might employ when faced with a potentially harrowing situation. This further lends to the very human heart of the film, even when exploring rather celestial questions. So whilst The Brand New Testament may not be a film that will be agreed with or enjoyed by all, it is a film that applies to everyone in a surprisingly profound way.
Words by Jon Heywood