December 05, 2015

Must Watch Before You Die #46: The Brand New Testament (2015)

Dear Mr. Jaco Van Dormael,

This letter may upset you. And hence I suggest you read it completely. Because in the past forty days or so, before which I did not even know of you or your work, I have become deeply interested in guessing what might upset you, or make you sad. Because your movies do not provide me with any clue. Because you are one of those rare film-makers who make death look so wonderful and heart-break so endearing. And as I type these words, you are one of my biggest inspirations. Of course, this will not be upsetting for you in any way. What then? Please read on.

On November 1st I watched your latest film, 'The Brand New Testament' at Mumbai Film Festival and I was no more the same person. Your film did something beautiful deep within me as it should to anyone who watches it. It was the first screening of the film at our festival and I talked about it to everyone, on every platform. I started taking pride in recommending your film to one and all, praising it as the best film of the year and urging them to catch its final screening on the final day of the festival at a theatre more than thirty kilometres away on the other side of the town. In order to add more weight to my recommendation I used one line for everyone - "You will pray for me and wish well for me for one full year if you end your festival with this brilliant Belgian film!" And then, to add more credibility to those who were still contemplating if they should miss a couple of movies at our regular venue and travel all the way downtown to catch the show that would end around midnight, I announced I'm going to do the same.

So the closing day arrived. Since 2009 I have taken pride in watching, on an average, more than 30 films during the festival week and hence missing even one is not an easy decision. In order to re-watch this film of yours I had to miss two, for it also involved travelling all the way through the evening Mumbai-traffic. But then, when you are in love, it all seems fine, isn't it? So I reached the venue, only to realise that there have been indeed several people who have travelled all the way to make this film their closing film, people who eventually took my recommendation seriously, people who were all charmed by that one line of mine! 

Until now, I don't think you have found any reason to feel upset, right? After all, I had acted like your unofficial, self-appointed PR guy! OK. So what followed next was the real nasty bit. Standing at the gate of the decades-old theatre at the mouth of Colaba Causeway in South Mumbai, I received the delegates with a proud smile - as if it were my film. When they took their seats, eager to experience the film that will close their festival, their favourite annual event, I felt excited and nervous - what if they don't like it too much - as if I were the writer-director. When the title 'The Brand New Testament' appeared on the screen, I started clapping, loudly, authoritatively, and soon the entire audience followed. I felt like a puppeteer who had engineered this event, and behaved as if I had brought the film to their eager eyes. And three minutes into the film, when they started reacting to it, I felt relieved. At the start of every scene, I would laugh alone, knowing where this scene is headed, thus pretending to be the film's biggest fan. And during its wonderful 110-minute run, I spent half of the time watching the faces of the audience beside and behind me, to see the magic of cinema unfold and make them happier and richer than they already were. The film was working, and I felt proud! 

The show, needless to say, ended with a massive applause. It was a cathartic moment for me. And before they left, so many of them came to thank me and promised to pray for me for the year to come. I received their gratitude and praise for the movie as if it were my own brilliant imagination and exemplary execution, my own sweat and blood, my own piece of cinema. On the closing night of the Mumbai Film Festival Mr. Von Dormael, in my own limited world, I stole your thunder. For many among my friends and loved ones, the film has become synonymous with me, thanks to my manipulative tactics, while almost none of them remember your name! Now, you do feel upset, right?

Or, perhaps, you don't. I can say this after watching your entire filmography in the days that followed. They say you made stuff for kids and also worked in a circus before making your debut at the age of 34. 'Toto the Hero' (1991) - that wonderful, unforgettable ride about love, life and death won you Camera d'Or at Cannes, perhaps the biggest award a debutant director can hope for. In the next 24 years, you made only three more films. At the age of 58, your filmography has four feature films only! Every time you make a film in a language other than English, your country sends it to the Oscars. This includes 'The Eighth Day' (1996) and your latest. And when you made your only English-language film, it was the original and profound 'Mr. Nobody' (2009), that has gained massive cult-following over the years. In each of these films I could see traces of 'The Brand New Testament' - your entire filmography has one unique, solid voice and a timeless impact. Is their any filmmaker today whose cinema is so beautiful, hopeful, joyful and thoughtful as yours? Can any author today celebrate life without shying away from its painful side the way you so successfully do, movie after movie? This world would be a much better place if you made more movies and hence I hope your next film comes very, very soon. But perhaps we do not deserve more of you. Our cynicism cannot handle too much of the innocence your work exudes and hence perhaps you should take your time. Because whatever you do, I know, will be nothing short of brilliant. If only other film-makers put as much time and energy into their work as you do. If only we had more storytellers like you!

I started the letter with a gimmick. I will end it with another. On this celebrated platform, my blog, which has a few dozen followers and where I feel like a king, I recommend some must-watch-before-you-die movies. On an average I recommend one movie out of every fifty I watch. And I generally do not recommend a very new movie as time is the safest test of cinema's quality. But if there is one movie from recent times that every human must watch, watch it soon and then watch it again with friends and loved ones, it has to be 'The Brand New Testament'. As if the film needed validation from a self-obsessed, insignificant blogger like me!

With heartfelt gratitude (and apologies for all the drama)
A Film-buff
Mumbai, India.


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