The Book of Clarence review

The Book of Clarence tries to be a biblical epic, a ‘hood movie and a stoner comedy all at once

2.5 out of 5 stars

There was a time when Hollywood could not conceive of a more spectacular spectacle than the contents of the Bible; for a while in the 1950s, the biggest blockbusters imaginable were pretty much all taken from biblical stories. Studios accurately surmised that one’s personal faith and beliefs would likely take a backseat to the appeal of seas parting, epic battles and chariot races. These days, the biblical epic is more or less dead and buried; a short attempt at revival as counter-programming a decade or so ago led to such unmemorable efforts as Exodus: Gods and Kings and the forgotten Ben-Hur remake directed by Timur Bekmambetov. These days, Christianity is represented in the form of squeaky-clean, inspirational faith-based movies that are quite literally preaching to the choir and the more melodramatic and/or comedic works of Tyler Perry (who has mostly moved out of features at this point), neither of which lend themselves to competing with the latest shenanigans from Marvel and DC.

Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence exists somewhere between all these things: melodramatic bursts of faith-based rapture exist alongside blistering action scenes and one-liners taken directly from Michael Bay action movies. A bit of revisionist questioning of understood myths, The Book of Clarence sometimes swipes at Last Temptation of Christ-level transcendence and sometimes contents itself with SNL-level tomfoolery from its stacked cast. It’s the kind of thing that we’re not too used to seeing in English-language film but has been commonplace in mainstream Indian blockbusters for some time, where the “masala” method of filmmaking can reframe folk heroes of legend as dick-swinging action heroes with the physical force of a hurricane.

Teyana Taylor The Book of Clarence
Teyana Taylor as Mary Magdalene in The Book of Clarence

The Book of Clarence is nevertheless somewhat more grounded than your average Shah Rukh Khan vehicle as it chronicles the life of Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a drug dealer and roustabout living ever-so-slightly in the shadow of his apostle brother Thomas (also played by Stanfield). Forever dicking around avoiding responsibility with his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler), Clarence is in debt to a kingpin with few prospects of ever making enough money to cover that debt. Inspired by his brother’s pal Jesus Christ (Nicholas Pinnock), Clarence frees the gladiator Barrabas (Omar Sy) and begins running a miracle con game, travelling between villages and performing hokey miracles on his accomplices for the simple pursuit of filthy lucre. Clarence’s miracles eventually attract the wrong kind of attention from Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward) and, eventually, Roman governor Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy).

Comparisons to The Life of Brian are inevitable, but to Samuel’s credit, broad humour only encompasses part of the weird tapestry of The Book of Clarence, which alternates cock-eyed parallels to the present-day (the early parts of the film featuring Clarence as a ne’er-do-well with potential echo the structure of “hood” movies from the ’90s, and the way the Romans are eventually positioned are meant to evoke Black Lives Matter) and more traditional biblical epic tropes. At first, it does seem like Samuel is aiming to position Clarence as the real, “historical” Jesus and present his story as the alternative Jesus myth, but the film soon moves into different territory altogether by blurring the lines and taking potshots at the white conception of Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed hippie type. Jesus Christ exists in the The Book of Clarence, but it posits the idea that no one man could truly be our idea of Jesus Christ and that the biblical, historical and liturgical idea of Jesus is most likely a composite.

The book of clarence
James McAvoy and LaKeith Stanfield in The Book of Clarence

It goes without saying that this type of throw-everything-at-the-wall approach is likely to have mixed results. The problem with The Book of Clarence isn’t so much that its individual parts are poorly handled, it’s that the whiplash between earnest emotion, comedy and ethereal fantasy takes a long time to get accustomed to. By the time it gets its groove, the film is almost over. It’s pretty bold to add even vague stoner undertones to biblical clichés, but the disconnect is sometimes so striking that the effect is lost. Awash in ever-present neo-soul musings from Samuel himself (parallel to his career as a filmmaker, Samuel is a neo-soul / R&B musician known as the Bullits), The Book of Clarence starts to take on some of its lead character’s aimlessness, constantly couching its most poignant moments in one-liners… and its funniest one-liners in half-baked meditations on faith.

You have to hand it to Samuel, though: crossing The Life of Brian and The Ten Commandments with absolute confidence isn’t really the kind of thing I expected from a major studio release in 2024. The Book of Clarence exists somewhere between daring originality and a confused layering of ideas, never quite as sacrilegious as its premise might suggest but never quite as megachurch-friendly as it would like to be, either. Call it a misfire. ■

The Book of Clarence (directed by Jeymes Samuel)

The Book of Clarence opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan 12.

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