‘The Book of Clarence’ review: The year’s first great comedy is a Biblical epic


The line between straightforward drama and riotous satire blurs in The Book of Clarence, the second feature film by The Harder They Fall‘s Jeymes Samuel (stage name: The Bullitts). The English singer-turned-filmmaker sinks his teeth into an ambitious inquiry of faith and morality, with an imagined tale of a wannabe thirteenth Apostle in 33 A.D., who decides to become a new Messiah.

The result is hilarious, romantic, deeply introspective, and surprisingly spiritual for a film that balances an atheistic approach to faith with a distinctly Christian worldview. Though let it not be said that The Book of Clarence is at all agnostic in presentation. It looks simultaneously backward and forward, recalling the Biblical epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, while taking a transformative approach to its ecclesiastical tale.

With a mostly-Black ensemble, the film acts implicitly (and through one hilarious punchline, explicitly) as a corrective to history’s numerous whitewashed Bible films. Samuel further unfurls this racial dynamic into a larger, all-encompassing saga about not just modern Blackness and state oppression, but the modern conundrum of faith, topics it covers while delicately balancing deft visual comedy and emotional sincerity.

Who is Clarence in The Book of Clarence?

Two men laugh side by side walking down the street in 33 A.D.

Credit: Legendary Entertainment / Moris Puccio

After its Ben-Hur inspired opening titles, The Book of Clarence fittingly begins with a chariot race, in which Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) overtakes best friends Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and Elijah (RJ Cyler) on the streets of Jerusalem. The film has its farcical elements, but this opening scene isn’t one of them. Rather, it seeks to establish a straightforward approach to character — the film introduces most relationships through movement, tone, and body language, not just dialogue — as well as a matter-of-fact-ness surrounding the idea that the no-good, street level hoodlum Clarence is a Biblical Forrest Gump, intersecting with key figures in the life of Jesus Christ (Nicholas Pinnock), and speaking to them with a mix of medieval “Ye Olde” English and modern AAVE. 

Clarence, a known troublemaker, is an atheist, while his estranged, pious twin brother (also played by Stanfield) happens to be the Apostle Thomas. However, the rift between them doesn’t come down to their faith in God, but their faith in each other — or lack thereof — in terms of their personal convictions. Thomas believes the wayward Clarence will never amount to anything. Clarence, meanwhile, holds Thomas’ blinkered dedication to Jesus against him, because it means turning his back on their ailing mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), with whom Clarence maintains a friendly, heartfelt dynamic. 

A man sits on the ground in a busy square, deep in thought.

Credit: Legendary Entertainment / Moris Puccio

As it happens, Clarence is also deeply in love with Varina (Anna Diop), the sister of one of his creditors: the vengeful Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). Between a brother he resents (and hopes to one-up) and a love interest one degree away from a dangerous man who wants him dead, Clarence cooks up a scheme to get in Jedediah’s good graces. But when his attempts to become Jesus’ 13th Apostle fail, he tries the next best thing: conning his way into Messiah status by manufacturing miracles, in order to earn not only respect, but enough contributions to settle his debts.

There’s a depth to Clarence that Stanfield conveys through his eyes alone. The character is always thinking, considering his next move, and reflecting on his social and moral status. As the film goes on, everything he wants, whether marriage, respect, or freedom from debt, all appear possible if he decides to tidy up his act and be a better, more responsible man. However, while the most obvious path in such stories certainly lies before him — embracing faith and finding God — The Book of Clarence isn’t concerned with a solution this simple. Clarence always sticks to his atheistic guns, because Samuel’s story isn’t about a man finding faith. Rather, it’s about a man working within the same spiritual and ethical framework as those seeking religious salvation. It’s a story about what it takes to become a better person, and the way it’s told is both dazzling and tongue-in-cheek.

The Book of Clarence is a visually-inspired comedy.

A group of men recreate The Last Supper.

Credit: Legendary Entertainment / Moris Puccio

Generally, modern Hollywood comedies take a risk-free aesthetic approach, between flat lighting that conveys little, blocking that conveys even less, and framing geared towards having comedians improvise dialogue. The Book of Clarence shatters that mold completely, by drawing on the classical formalism of the epics on which it riffs (you’re likely to find homages to William Wyler and George Stevens alongside modern tricks like Snorricam).

The film also has no qualms about magical realism, despite its focus on a nonbeliever. On the streets of Jerusalem, hashish gets you high — literally. It makes you float like a hot air balloon. Enlightenment arrives cartoonishly, in the form of glowing white light above your head (lightbulbs haven’t been invented yet), while poetic flirtation, during which couples gaze longingly at one another, is so intoxicating that it changes the color of one’s eyes. Even Jesus is imbued with supernatural abilities akin to Neo from The Matrix (his physical presence, however, is so otherworldly as to be overwhelming; Pinnock conveys an elegant sense of love and wisdom through his gaze).

Despite the movie often breaking the immersion of its antiquated dialogue — at one point, Joseph calls Clarence a “dumbass” — it never turns its back on its visual palette, courtesy of cinematographer Rob Hardy. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, with the warmth and flicker of candle lights illuminating interior scenes, and gentle, soft-focus close-ups capturing Clarence and Varina’s stolen moments of intimacy.

The humor is also punctuated by sudden movements of the frame; it’s a consistently watchable film. That might sound like backhanded praise, but The Book of Clarence is the kind of movie you could watch on mute — which is to say, really watch and understand through its visuals alone. Of course, the precision of its filmmaking would amount to little if what the camera was capturing weren’t so daring and fascinating in the first place.

Jeymes Samuel crafts a smart and rigorous satire.

A man stands in a crowd attentively listening.

Credit: Legendary Entertainment / Moris Puccio

Like his first film, the revisionist Western The Harder They Fall, Samuel remixes the myth and history with one eye on the present. With an all-star cast of Black actors from various countries — England’s David Oyelowo plays a sarcastic, short-tempered John the Baptist; French star Omar Sy plays Clarence’s loyal warrior sidekick Barnabas — the film’s casting is deeply political, though not merely through its optics. The characters’ accents run the gamut from American and English to Jamaican and West African (some of the actors are Nigerian and Senegalese), and Samuel is hardly subtle about his social commentary about modern Blackness as a western construct, and the experiences that bind it. 

Whenever Roman guards enter the picture, all played by white actors, the racial dynamic becomes overt through both dialogue and action. They behave as historical oppressors would, but some of their specifics are modulated to match how American police officers might behave, like throwing a spear at an unarmed character running away before claiming self-defense — which ultimately leads to a moving subplot about Black resilience in the face of adversity.

This is, however, arguably the meta-textual theme as well. In The Book of Clarence, the suffering of Christ-like figures (whether Clarence or Jesus himself) comes laced with contemporary commentary through fleeting but memorable lines of dialogue — most notably, from Clarence’s mother, who sees the bigger picture of the danger her son is in. If to suffer is to be Christ-like, then how does one confront the notion of an entire people being forced to suffer under the boot-heels of white supremacy? 

A Roman governor and a man have a standoff in a crowd.

Credit: Legendary Entertainment / Moris Puccio

Like Jesus, Clarence draws the ire of Roman governor Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) for his claims of divinity, and the story takes on additional layers the more Clarence’s tale begins to resemble the Bible. While there was no historical or Biblical equivalent to Clarence, Thomas is believed, by some, to be the brother of Jesus — perhaps even his twin — making Samuel’s choice of family connection especially meaningful, as though he had created Clarence as a stand-in for Jesus himself, and for Messianic ideas he wished to explore.

By having two simultaneous Jesus stories unfolding at once, The Book of Clarence is able to confront and reckon with two different paths to scrutinizing morality — religious and non-religious — while presenting a divine and supernatural version of Jesus (as has appeared in numerous films) alongside a a corruptible Messiah with human foibles. While the movie’s version of Jesus has a powerful, all-knowing, all-loving aura, Clarence struggles on a daily basis with the question of whether he can transcend his selfishness despite not believing in God.

The film’s very premise represents a modern crisis of faith in the face of oppression (fewer Black Americans, for instance, have identified as religious in recent years), and Samuel creates dueling embodiments of Jesus by employing a long-held debate about his divinity as though it were a narrative prism. The Book of Clarence uses the dilemma between believing in Jesus, the divine prophet, and Jesus the mortal man — believing in scripture or history — to split the very concept of Jesus in two, but without ever presenting them as mutual exclusives.

It’s a stunning reconciliation of ideas usually at odds, taking the form of a knee-slapping historical comedy that proves utterly absorbing and emotionally moving in its finest moments. The Book of Clarence is a farce that takes itself seriously, using clashing questions of belief to turn the well-tread cinematic spectacle of Jesus’ life into a powerful, multifaceted tale of spiritual crisis. 

How to watch: The Book of Clarence is now showing in theaters.

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