In our quest for meaning and purpose, humanity has always looked for a greater power for answers. So what if God was, like Joan Osborne’s ’90s power ballad pondered, one of us?
If the superior being in charge of our destinies was plagued with mortal traits, would he be selfish, vengeful, lazy, and proud?
Visionary Belgian moviemaker, Jaco Van Dormael has created a vision of the Lord that is both hilarious and decidedly unflattering in The Brand New Testament, a harmlessly blasphemous comedy that posits that God (Benoît Poelvoorde) not only exists, he lives in Brussels, has a wife (Yolande Moreau) and daughter, and holds a grudge against Jesus for being fond of mankind. In a dirty office, clad perpetually in pajamas, God plays with our lives for his own entertainment by creating countless annoyances, killing us mercilessly, and encouraging us to hurt one another in his name. However, tired of his malicious behavior against his own creations, his 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) challenges his power by allowing humans to know the day they will die, and looks for six new apostles to understand our predicaments and motivations.
This delightfully thought-provoking, outrageously inventive satire was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film this past January, and made the nine-film shortlist for the 2016 Academy Award in the same category. Though it has taken a long pilgrimage for this magical realist revision to bless American screens, Christmas is the perfect time for it to happen.
Van Dormael, whose previous feature was the ambitious and existential sci-fi tale Mr. Nobody, combines profound truths, dry comedy and sumptuous imagery brimming with imagination to create what could be the most original film of the year. He joins the ranks of filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Tim Burton—but with his own knack for visual miracles.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Mr. Nobody was very large in scope and played with time a great deal. Now we have The Brand New Testament, which is very much in the same vein about the meaning of life. Where did this film’s idea come from?
Jaco Van Dormael (JVD): I never know where these ideas come from. I had a good film teacher in L.A. named Frank Daniel who said, “You can see the quality of the script if you look at the pants of the scriptwriter. They have to be very flat in the bottom, which shows that the writer has been sitting a long time.” This film mostly came from my co-writer and I trying to make each other laugh. I think the beginning was: God exists, he lives in Brussels, and he has a wife and a daughter that no one spoke about. It is true that in the New Testament you don’t see a lot of lines spoken by women. At the beginning of the film, his daughter sends a text message to everybody so everyone knows the day they’ll die. Then, the real story begins. It came to have something to do with religion; we started to write during the march in Paris against weddings. You had kids in the street with crosses, marching against homosexual weddings. It all looked quite crazy from Belgium. We were editing during the moment of Charlie Hebdo, so it seems as if the film is situated between these two crazy events. As my editor and I read the news, we said, “It’s important to continue to love everybody and everything, even if that’s totally utopic. It’s really necessary—a good exercise to continue to love everything with everybody. It’s important to think it’s possible. If we stop, it will be impossible.
MM: Even if it involves subjects that some people think you shouldn’t touch, like religion.
JVD: Personally, I don’t believe in God, so it was very easy to do. It’s not about Allah, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to make this interview. It’s about power in religion and society. It’s also about power in the family, where somebody, usually a male, says you have to obey the rules, otherwise there will be a punishment. What the little girl says in defiance of this fear is, “Don’t be afraid, there will be no punishment, you can do as you like.” What’s most important in The Brand New Testament is to remember to not afraid.
MM: How did you create a character for this God, who is so far from godly?
JVD: Of course it’s not about God; it’s about a God in a story. This God is a bad guy who loves to annoy the diminutive human beings. There are some descriptions in the Bible where God is jealous, like in the Old Testament where he destroys cities. Hitchcock says a good film needs a good bad guy. That makes the daughter a rebel against the “bad guy.” The real story is about the rebellion of the daughter against the father, with her main act of rebellion being setting humans free. The six people she meets put themselves in little prisons and have incredibly confined views of their own lives. The daughter’s view on this is, “You can open the box. Not everything is set, you can build something different and new. What you build is yourself.“
MM: God and Ea, they’re out of touch with humans. They don’t really know what being human is. When God comes to Earth, he suffers from the annoyances that he himself created. Do you sometimes feel that religion is out of touch with real life, with how real people live? That the rules of religion on how we are expected to behave are out of touch with how real life works?
JVD: What was great with this film was that we could shoot in Brussels and fit it to the needs of the story. In the Bible, the beginning was a paradise with giraffes, lions, Adam and Eve. What we get in The Brand New Testament is the present time. It’s completely different, yet we have Adam and Eve in this modern environment. The film keeps the structure of a tale. There is a French philosopher, Deleuze, who said there is one common point between religion and cinema: They both try to make you believe that life could have a meaning. It’s true; in stories, like in religion, we are shown that everything is necessary and life will go somewhere. In all my films, I try to stick with the beliefs of cinema—that life eventually answers its questions. At the end, you will be satisfied and see that everything is necessary. Like in Mr. Nobody—how do you speak about life within a medium that aspires to make everything necessary. in the same way as religion? The most beautiful scenes in my own life are probably the most unnecessary. The end will not give any more meaning to these moments, so how do you go about expressing this?
The structure of the story is really the thing that interests me the most. In Mr. Nobody, you only have questions but no answers, which is exactly the kind of film I like. The Brand New Testament is a lot like Alice in Wonderland—an episodic movie where, from moment to moment, you don’t know where we are going. As you watch it, you forget about wanting to go back home or anything outside the experience of the movie. You don’t look at the end of the path; you look around your feet, you look at the stones, you smell the grass. It’s another way of storytelling. The story doesn’t give an answer to any question, but it gives a perception of the present. At the moment, the present is beautiful.
MM: I think one of the most interesting concepts in the move is the idea of releasing the decease dates. The moment they all know how much time they have left, the perception of life completely changes for all of the characters, and that’s very powerful. We all have an expiration date. We just don’t know it.
JVD: I live like I am immortal every day. I find that I constantly need to remind myself that, “My God, no, I shouldn’t do this stupid thing; I should take everyday seriously.” I feel that, with everyone receiving the text message with the day of their death, there is a sense of time becoming much more precious. Indeed, the minutes we have to live on this earth are the only treasure we have. Even if we don’t know why we’re here, it’s a great place to be.
MM: But it’s easy to forget that. One of the apostles in your film is a man who works at a job that he hates, just counting the hours. When he knows his destiny, he just decides to sleep in a park. Knowing how much time he has is kind of liberating. It gives him the freedom to accept that he’s going to die, and that he has to do something that will make him happy.
JVD: That’s it. At that moment the apostle, Jean-Claude, says, “I stopped the bullshit. I stopped the bullshit in my life and now I am taking it seriously.” There’s a beautiful quote: If happiness is a house, we spend too much time in the waiting room. Here indeed, Jean-Claude has spent too much time in the waiting room and, at this moment, he finally leaves this room and realizes that he can do anything.
MM: Tell me about writing the comedy in The Brand New Testament. How do you balance these big ideas about the meaning life and death, and make it all so funny as well?
JVD: I think it’s funny because all the ways of looking for happiness in this film are unexpected. The sex maniac that watches a porno and rediscovers the love of his childhood. In response, God’s little girl says, “Don’t live your life like it was a story in a script.” Totally unexpected things are all around you. Perhaps you are not the person that you imagine you are—you can be somebody else.
MM: Was it important for you to deal with these ideas through comedy? In tone, this film is very different from Mr. Nobody, which was more solemn.
JVD: Mr. Nobody was very good for people who are familiar with video games. They watch it and ask, “Wow, there are so many choices, which is the best one?” It’s a little bit of the same subject. With a comedy you can deal with concepts that you might not want to in drama. There is no censorship if it’s funny. We can say things in a humorous way that would be a little too rebellious for drama
MM: Tell me about the cinematic language and storytelling devices you used to make this film: the magical realism, the chapters or the narration.
JVD: A lot of these came from working with a co-writer who is a novelist, not a screenwriter. I liked a lot that, the dialogue contained a great many monologues, much like those in a book. I love the moment when all of the characters, even the children, look at the camera and speak with complex words that most of us would have to look up in the dictionary. In a literary way, it gives the material something poetic and strange, a little funny and a little crazy. It also provides a sort of link with the audience; when the character turns and looks into the lens, it’s very powerful.
MM: The music is a very important component; both the music used in the film and also the idea that every person has a theme song, a song that defines you. How did this evolve?
JVD: The music is the special thing that each character has. When we are first introduced to these characters, they are all magnificent losers. They are the kind of people who would go unnoticed on the street. They are a little grey and they fade into the walls. When you listen to their music, however, it’s opera, it’s Baroque; it’s something huge. It was interesting to give inner music that is so grand to people who feel as if life, love and happiness are not for them anymore. From the outside, they appear so small, but on the inside, they are huge.
MM: Why do you find interest in these beautiful losers? Why do you think they are the most interesting characters to become the six apostles?
JVD: In the New Testament, the apostles are losers too. They are revealed by something crazy. Jesus was a rebel too—a revolutionary even—much like the character of Ea, his sister.
MM: Did you have to go back and reread the Bible as research?
JVD: Europe is very much a Catholic culture, so I know the book very well. When I was a kid I thought, wow, it’s a great book with great characters and a very sad ending. A few years ago, I was reading the Apocrypha books. They are quite lengthy, but reading everything that was cut out was very interesting. There were a lot of influential women in the 300 years after Jesus who were excised due to political reasons. At that moment, religion didn’t have anything to do with God. Religion was about having the power to unify Greece, Italy, Turkey and Jerusalem. These days, especially in Europe and America, religion is used to gain power; it doesn’t have anything to do with God, it’s just about power.
MM: Tell me about the visual style of the film, how you worked with DP Christophe Beaucarne to achieve this pristine look.
JVD: From the beginning, we were going for something that looked like an old-school tale. It was reality, but it didn’t have to look anything like reality. Instead, we wanted the movie to look more theatrical. We had the idea of taking away every religion sign, or anything that had to do with religion and, instead, to shoot it like a religious image. We wanted each frame to look frontal, symmetrical like a church, and with eyes to the camera. This gives everything a strange and beautiful quality, even if it’s something as banal as a washing machine or garage.
MM: Was the idea of God’s wife not speaking based on the original Testament where women are left out without a voice?
JVD: That’s it. Also the idea of, what if God was a Goddess? In the film women can do little miracles, and the men can’t do anything, but he has a computer and a key, so he says, “Stay in the kitchen, I’ll take care of everything.” It’s a lot of oppression and authority… And it’s so normal to have a wife and a daughter. Does he live in New York, or Venice, or a beautiful place? No, he lives in Brussels; it’s rainy, nothing works, and it’s the place I know the best. It looks more real to me, the closest to reality.
MM: Did you get any reactions from religious groups? Were they positive or were they offended?
JVD: Yeah. In some countries, like Poland, Russia and Spain, they asked me, “Aren’t you afraid?” I was not kidnapped by a dozen nuns. I didn’t have any bad reactions, even in Belgium. I checked out the website of a local church, and it had a message that said, “You should see that film, because it asks interesting questions about women in religion, and if there is a paradise or not.”
MM: How was the transition going from Mr. Nobody, which is in English, has a star in Jared Leto, and is a big production, to a smaller, more local film like The Brand New Testament?
JVD: Mr. Nobody is perhaps my favorite film. I never know if it’s my favorite film because it was harder for that film—like if you have a kid, if it’s hard for him, you have more affection for him. It was my biggest commercial film, but my biggest success. At the moment when I finished that, I was thinking, my God, I’m not sure I can do better, so I’ll have to do something different. And you’re only [as good as] the last film you made. After Mr. Nobody, it was really hard to get a production going, and I produced it myself. That gave me freedom of speech in the film; nobody told me he drinks too much beer or he shouldn’t smoke, and so on. I did it with a bunch of friends. It was 8.5 million euro, which was hard to raise, but it’s not so much money. I have to learn to make films with less money. It’s interesting to make films with less money. For example, for the part about camping in Spain, we put together some toys and some sand and a ventilator. It’s written as camping in Spain, but what we did is much better, in fact, because it’s just storytelling, it’s not reality anymore. We are not distracted by the real world, it’s just storytelling, and it’s much more poetic—and cheaper.
MM: Do you feel like there are parallels between the two films in terms of ideas of life and death? What’s the connection for you between the two?
JVD: Every film I make, I think I will do something totally different that doesn’t have anything to do with my previous films. And when I see it, I think, oh my God, it resembles my previous films a lot. I think my preoccupations are: What is this strange experience of being alive? This strange experience that we all have of waking up in the morning, and it’s great until we are dead?
MM: What’s the reaction like in Belgium?
JVD: Very good. It was very successful in Belgium, France, Italy and Germany, and in Europe in general. I never know what will happen. Making films, for me, is like dropping a message in a bottle in the sea, and I’m so glad when somebody finds it. When there’s a reaction and a response, it’s miraculous.
MM: If you found out how much time you had left to live, what would you do?
JVD: I hope I will never get that message, especially from the doctor; a text message is OK, but not the doctor. I think I would do nothing for as long as possible. I could be a professional in doing nothing. MM
The Brand New Testament opens in theaters December 9, 2016, courtesy of Music Box Films.