As absurdist comedy The Brand New Testament hits cinemas, we explore other inventive visualisations of a higher power, from chain-smoking alcoholics to a bearded Alan Partridge
Filmmakers don’t have their own ten commandments for depicting God on screen, which is why cinema can subvert the default image of him/her/it as an old white guy with a beard. Until God takes a selfie, no one knows for sure, right?
Upcoming absurdist comedy The Brand New Testament goes on the attack: God is a vindictive slob with cereal crumbs on his dressing gown. Knowingly responsible for human suffering, he gets a kick out of an imperfect world; one thing leads to another, the planet’s population contemplates its mortality, and cinema legend Catherine Deneuve romances a gorilla. A lot happens – all because God, it turns out, is just human.
All of which has got us thinking about other inventive visualisations of God in film. After all, any attempt is automatically a statement of some kind, and it doesn’t always go down well with audiences. Here are some ways that directors have approached the creator.
MUTE A CANADIAN POP STAR
The casting of God in Dogma upset two camps: the church, and everyone sick of Jagged Little Pill. Jay and Silent Bob encounter the woman upstairs – AKA Silent God – in the form of Alanis Morissette, whose behaviour is coy and quirky (apart from a scream that disintegrates Ben Affleck). Otherwise, she doesn’t speak, thus joining the film’s opposition to the Bible’s overwhelming maleness/whiteness – Chris Rock claims to be the thirteenth apostle, left out because he’s black. Ultimately, Morissette’s casting is a satisfying punchline: she’s a singer with the volume turned down. To quote her famous lyric, isn’t it… isn’t it… something you oughta know?
YOU TALKING TO ME?
Emily Watson discovers in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves that God is female, contactable outside of office hours, and speaks with a Scottish accent. Though a “Dear Father…” is used, Watson literally answers her own prayers: she holds a conversation with herself, using a deeper voice for God, and finds comfort at a time of need. Either mentally ill or tricking herself as a final resort, she doesn’t need God to be real for her faith to kick and scream. Still, her quick glance into the camera suggests she’s not fooling herself, either.
GOD IS EMPTY, JUST LIKE ME
“I just didn’t give a fuck,” God moans in The Acid House, Paul McGuigan’s adaptation of an Irvine Welsh’s short story collection. Here, the almighty being is depicted by Maurice Roëves as a Scottish, chain-smoking alcoholic spouting a C-word that isn’t Christ. “You see me and you hear me as you imagine me,” he adds between sips. In this pub, the world’s creator is the nosy guy in the corner who interrupts strangers with advice (“everything’s my business”) and seems to know all the locals – well, God is supposed to be omniscient.
JESUS: SO HOT RIGHT NOW
“Will Ferrell has reached walking living breathing god status!” Kanye tweeted in February after multiple viewings of Zoolander 2, but Ferrell undertook that role long ago in 1999’s forgotten Superstar. When Molly Shannon has an existential crisis – basically her Kanye moment – she prays and summons the Lord to her bedroom. Swooping through the window, Ferrell – shiny and shaggy, a mixture of Jesus, her father and Mugatu – admits, “Your subconscious came up with me to help you deal. Dig?” The joke here is someone comparing Ferrell to God – which of course would be preposterous.
SELFISHNESS AND SELF-INDULGENCE
Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament, already an arthouse hit across Europe, places God in Brussels. A middle-aged man living a student lifestyle, he lounges around in a dressing gown and works all day at a computer – it’s on this outdated PC (visually funnier than a laptop) that he toys around with humankind, with his divine right being little more than password-protected software. There is an obvious gag at play, but as the film ventures into existential conundrums about life’s inherent meaningless, it raises the issue of why God – if such a thing exists – deserves the worship. Because actually, if God created man in his image, that’s a not a brag, it’s a guilty confession.
24 HOUR PARTY STEEPLE
24 Hour Party People may sell the Madchester movement as a religion (it feels too non-profit to be a cult), but Shaun Ryder isn’t God and Bez definitely isn’t a maraca-wobbling apostle. The real deal is summoned when Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson ascends to the heavens (a rooftop) and sees God in his own image – after getting high on a few hits of the non-musical kind, of course. “It’s a pity you didn’t sign The Smiths,” says God. “But you were right about Mick Hucknall – his music is rubbish.” Even with the levitation, a slur against Simply Red and the whole God thing, there’s still a bit of Alan Partridge in everything Coogan does.
TELL ROLLING STONE MY LAST WORDS: I’M ON DRUGS
“I am a golden god. I am a golden god.” In Almost Famous, rock star Russell yells it twice, so it must be true. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Stillwater’s lead guitarist is a golden god. He’s not the golden god. What does this theological hierarchy mean? Cameron Crowe confirms he saw Robert Plant utter the same words on a Sunset Strip balcony in 1975. That the film is set in 1973 means Led Zeppelin were beaten to the punch, though it’s unconfirmed if Stillwater also wrote “Stairway to Heaven” first. To this day, Billy Crudup still gets called a golden god by strangers – especially when he’s drunk and leaping into swimming pools.
SEND A REPRESENTATIVE
Funnily enough, the films that drew the most protests from religious groups were serious interpretations of Jesus from Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese depicts the son of God, played by Willem Dafoe, as someone whose sacrifices are recognisably human; he marries Mary, then gives up her love to die on the cross. For The Passion of the Christ, Gibson did his homework and met with religious leaders beforehand, only to learn he can’t please everyone – he’d soon find a more direct way to offend mass audiences.