Arts & Books Comment

Film: A dangerously whimsical riff on the New Testament

Benoît Poelvoorde as ‘God’ in an absurdist Belgian comedy

The premise of The Brand New Testament (15, 115 mins, ★★★) has clearly not been designed to win the approval of many Catholics. Belgian writer-director Jaco van Dormael casts God (Benoît Poelvoorde, star of cult classic Man Bites Dog) as a grubby layabout living with a put-upon wife and depressed young daughter in a Brussels tower block.

He spends his time controlling the human race via a computer, which mainly involves thinking up petty ways to annoy people (toast, he decrees, will always land jam-side down), remaining oblivious to the fact his daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) is plotting her escape.

Shortly before getting away, Ea sends out a text message to everyone in the world telling them exactly how many days they have left to live. With humanity in chaos, she hits the streets of the Belgian capital to create a brand new testament that will tell the stories of ordinary people. With a tramp as her scribe, Ea quickly attracts a band of apostles each with their own tale to tell about how their lives have gone wrong, and what they plan to do to make the most of the rest of their time on earth.

If you can get past this gleefully blasphemous scenario (and, admittedly, some may find that difficult), you’ll discover a film that is both entertaining and irritating. Via an inventive visual style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson, The Brand New Testament swings from absurdist comedy (at one stage Catherine Deneuve’s bored housewife falls in love with a gorilla) to elegiac reflection on mortality and loneliness.

There are certainly some funny and moving moments, but the comic scenes are too broad to pack a satirical punch, while the melancholic stuff contains dangerously high levels of whimsy.

As the film reaches its climax, “God” becomes increasingly desperate to get his daughter back home to restart his computer, so he can regain control of the world. Dormael could have done with applying a little more control himself.

In Eye in the Sky (15, 102 mins, ★★★) we also get people attempting to assert themselves from behind computer screens, but here the stakes are somewhat different. Helen Mirren plays an army colonel in charge of an operation to take out a couple of British members of Al-Shabaab in Kenya.

The Islamists are plotting suicide bombings and Mirren must persuade the attorney-general and other high-ranking politicians at a hastily convened Cobra meeting to sign off the mission. The American operative tasked with pressing the trigger needs convincing too, when a young girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), pitches up to sell bread right outside the terrorists’ safe house and will almost certainly be killed if the missile is deployed

The rapid shifts in point of view between the military bunkers on either side of the Atlantic, hi-tech drones and the Cobra meeting are skilfully handled by director Gavin Hood.

This, combined with the film’s set-up, gives proceedings a compulsive energy that’s easy to be swept along by. An enjoyable farcical element is also brought into play as the decision to bomb or not to bomb is continually “referred up” to increasingly senior politicians.

Yet there are major flaws that make Eye in the Sky average rather than excellent. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the way the little girl is used to ratchet up tension is a cheap cinematic trick, and if in reality there are this many teary-eyed equivocators throughout the chain of command then we might as well allow ISIS and Al-Shabaab to roll into London and stick up their black flags wherever they like.

The film is so keen to present all sides of the argument that it fails to come up with its own punchy thesis. Hood and his writer, Guy Hibbert, deserve credit for tackling the vexing issue of what might be done to deal with Islamist terrorism, but ultimately it’s simply too big and complex a subject for Eye in the Sky’s contrived set-up to handle.