The Book of Clarence (2024, dir. Jeymes Samuel)

by | Apr 17, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 129 mins

UK Distributor: Sony Pictures

UK Release Date: 19 April 2024

WHO’S IN THE BOOK OF CLARENCE?

LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Babs Olusanmokun, Nicholas Pinnock, Chase Dillon, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jeymes Samuel (director, writer, producer, composer), Shawn Carter, James Lassiter and Tendo Nagenda (producers), Rob Hardy (cinematographer), Tom Eagles (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 33 AD Jerusalem, Clarence (Stanfield) takes advantage of the celebrity culture surrounding a certain prophet…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON [TITLE]?

[This is a slightly re-edited version of our review for The Book of Clarence from its showing at the BFI London Film Festival]

After revising the Old West with his cool-as-hell debut The Harder They Fall, filmmaker Jeymes Samuel – known in the music world as The Bullitts – isn’t showing signs of humility as he now, for his sophomore feature, sets his sights on that most sacred of texts: the Bible. But before you call sacrilege on The Book of Clarence, know that while it absolutely puts a whole new spin on the religious epic in the same way that The Harder They Fall did with the Western, it isn’t as damning or as controversial as you may think it to be. In fact, it’s a riotous and often very clever satire about hero worship and celebrity culture, one that happens to put the spiritual legacy of Jesus at its centre.

Set in 33 AD Jerusalem, our main character is Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a no-good hustler who always finds himself underneath the shadow of his twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield), who happens to be one of the twelve Disciples of a certain saintly local figure. After losing a chariot race – to none other than Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) – Clarence and his friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) find themselves heavily indebted to local gangster Jedediah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), whose sister Varinia (Anna Diop) is also in Clarence’s gaze, and must raise a certain number of shekels if they are to have their lives spared. The answer, Clarence deduces, is to take advantage of the fame that Jesus (Babs Olusanmokun) has accumulated, and declare himself a new prophet with his own pseudo-spiritual wisdom being departed unto curious paying audiences. However, it isn’t long before Clarence finds himself on the receiving end of the brutish Roman army, who have made it their personal mission to hunt and crucify anyone who deems themselves to be a messenger of the Lord.

The easiest comparison to make with The Book of Clarence is, of course, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. However, such a comparison, though understandable, would be somewhat short-sighted, because while this film definitely has a lot of comedic moments that poke fun at the blind faith of people in Jesus’s lifetime – although nowhere near as extensive as that classic comedy – Jeymes Samuel’s movie is surprisingly more concerned with delivering a meaningful message about the nature of faith as a whole. Throughout the film, LaKeith Stanfield’s Clarence is a stern non-believer of Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God, and at one point desperately visits the prophet’s mother Mary (Alfre Woodard) to find out exactly how he does all of his amusing magic tricks, only to be stonewalled by the same claims of divinity he hears on a regular basis. While some of these moments are definitely played for laughs, you can tell that Samuel isn’t just sitting there pointing and laughing at people who believe in such wild fantasies, instead incorporating it into the character’s overall arc towards a less cynical mindset that is open to the possibility of there being a higher power. Crucially, though, it is not one of those faith-based films that present Christianity as the one and only answer to everything, but a mere crux on which someone can base their stronger morals on, something that Samuel respectfully adheres to without pandering to any demographics.

Although it is, thematically and topically, a much heavier and more dramatic movie than The Harder They Fall, there is still plenty of stylish flair that Samuel brings to The Book of Clarence. His is a Biblical universe where the most magical of imagery, such as the mid-air freezing of flung rocks, or being able to walk on water, or even people floating about after smoking some potent substances, is an everyday fact of life for its civilians, which Samuel eccentrically sprinkles throughout amidst a script full of Old/New Testament wit, and a sly sense of humour that makes it rather fun to sit through (the film’s standout gag involves a cameoing Benedict Cumberbatch, whose role in the film I won’t spoil for you here, but know that it’s a whopper that takes brilliant aim at the literal whitewashing of Biblical history). Meanwhile, Samuel has gathered an ensemble cast who know exactly how cool to play it, even in Biblical times, all of whom are led by LaKeith Stanfield – a charismatic highlight of The Harder They Fall – who gives a firmly charming central turn (twice, in fact, shining also as the Disciple Thomas) that becomes more and more empathetic as he goes along with his swindling scheme.

Tonally, the film can be a bit difficult to comprehend at times, for it will go from laugh-out-loud funny to gravely serious at the drop of a hat, but it’s all just about held together by Samuel’s stylish flair that gives it plenty of suave personality to enjoy. Wherever he goes from here, having put his unique spin on both the Western and the Biblical epic, Jeymes Samuel is bound to further expand his unique and daring vision in ways not many of us will have thought of before.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Book of Clarence is an enjoyably stylish Biblical epic that sees filmmaker Jeymes Samuel bring his charismatic and often very funny vision to the New Testament, while still telling a rather meaningful story about faith that should resonate with anyone, regardless of their religion.

Four of of five stars

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