The Book of Clarence

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

The Book of Clarence
dir-scr Jeymes Samuel
prd Shawn Carter, James Lassiter, Tendo Nagenda
with LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Nicholas Pinnock, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch
release US 12.Jan.24,
UK 19.Apr.24
23/US TriStar 2h09

oyelowo ward woorard
london film fest

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stanfield, sy and cyler
A parable about the nature of faith, this film requires a willingness to set expectations aside and simply go along with it. Writer-director Jeymes Samuel mixes playful parody, snarky references, warm drama and true belief in a way that's uneven and indulgent but also thoroughly engaging. Even if it's deliberately offbeat and anachronistic, this is a remarkably original sword-and-sandals biblical epic, anchored in a riveting performance by LaKeith Stanfield.
In Roman-occupied Jerusalem, crowds are following Jesus (Pinnock), marvelling at his miracles. But struggling peddler Clarence (Stanfield) remains outspokenly atheist, even though his twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield) is one of Jesus' disciples. While trying to impress Varinia (Diop), Clarence falls afoul of true-believer loanshark Jedediah (Kofi Abrefa). And in an attempt appease him, Clarence applies to become Jesus' 13th apostle. But they won't have him. So his sidekick Elijah (Cyler) and freed slave Barabbas (Sy) help Clarence become a messiah himself. But of course this puts him in the crosshairs of Pontius Pilate (McAvoy).
With swaggering music by Samuel, and plenty of cocksure attitude, the film often feels like it could spiral into something like The Life of Brian or Blazing Saddles at any moment. But even with its hip-hop vibe, the story remains a faithful riff on the biblical account. Shot in Italy, the film looks terrific, with bright sunshine drenching the gorgeous locations. And the gifted scene-stealing cast adds nuance to familiar figures like John the Baptist (Oyelowo), Jesus' mother Mary (Woodard), Mary Magdalene (Taylor) and Judas Iscariot (Ward).

Stanfield has enormous presence as Clarence, whose confidence obscures a more sensitive soulfulness. His journey through this narrative is almost startlingly earnest, and Stanfield captures a lovely mix of joy, humour, longing and pain. And he brings a very different complexity to Thomas. There's also a huge charge of chemistry with both the sparky-beefy Sy and the wryly hilarious Cyler. Diop has a strong presence as the fiercely independent Varenia. And Jean-Baptiste provides a warm kick as Clarence and Thomas' mum.

Samuel stages the comedy and drama as adeptly as the wildly entertaining action sequences, so it might feel rather strange when the film begins to shift into a slightly preachy exploration of the way faith finds you, rather than the other way round. Clarence initially sees himself as just another false messiah, but his message about oppression and justice is powerful. This makes his climactic transformations feel absurd, but it's likely that this is Samuel's point.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 9.Apr.24

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© 2024 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall