The Book of Clarence (TriStar Pictures, PG-13)

The Book of Clarence firmly establishes writer/director/composer Jeymes Samuel as one of the most talented and exciting new voices in filmmaking today. Even though there are a few moments where the film feels slightly uneven, its ambition, performances, and perspective combine to make it more than simply one of the precious few good biblical satires. It’s a great movie, period.

My praise shouldn’t be taken to mean that Clarence — both the film and its lead character — won’t rankle some members of the audience, particularly the militantly religious and the militantly atheist. Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is the down-on-his-luck twin brother of Thomas (also played by Stanfield), the infamous “doubter” among Jesus’ (Nicholas Pinnock) disciples. Here, Thomas likes to brag that he’s ten minutes older than Clarence, and he and the other disciples tease Clarence for a whole host of things before rejecting his request to join them. Resenting his brother for abandoning their mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) when she was sick, Clarence decides to strike out on his own as a new prophet, one who preaches knowledge over mere belief. He’s quite successful until he eventually meets the same scrutiny Jesus met from Roman society.

Clarence and his compatriots, such as RJ Cyler as his best friend Elijah, see the goings-on of this period of biblical history through slightly sarcastic eyes, although they regularly engage in some very brave and righteous actions. The overall concepts of Clarence’s prophecies may be blasphemous to some, but if one takes the film with the wink-and-nod energy it’s being presented with, the story manages to touch on several modern issues by reminding us how similar its setting is to today. For one thing, do any of us really hesitate to “throw the first stone” anymore? This is explored in Elijah’s standout scene. That’s also the first time we meet Pinnock’s portrayal of Jesus, a cross between a superhero and a down-to-earth saint, a framing which emphasizes Clarence’s slowly-eroding cynicism.

Stanfield is fantastic in the title role. As director Samuel begins to cycle through his unique mix of tones and ideas, Stanfield is the comedic and emotional anchor keeping us grounded when we don’t quite know where the film is going. Once it gets to where it’s going, however, everything works in perfect idiosyncratic harmony, including and especially Stanfield’s performance. Perhaps the film’s best scene is between Clarence and Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), when a miracle takes place and Clarence begins to warm to the possibility of the miraculous.

The supporting cast is equally terrific, especially Eric Kofi-Abrefa as a character called Jedediah the Terrible. He delivers a monologue to a Roman soldier which brilliantly ties together so many of the film’s themes surrounding race and power. Samuel does a fantastic job of allowing this sampler platter of satire to be a true ensemble piece, with wonderful scenes for Alfre Woodard as Mother Mary, Omar Sy as Barabbas, and David Oyelowo as John the Baptist.

In addition to the stellar writing, acting, and thematic exploration, The Book of Clarence is also visually stunning, calling back mid-century biblical epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Director of photography Rob Hardy also excels at injecting his gorgeous vistas with a sly sense of the satirical, abetting Samuel’s score in occasionally poking fun at biblical reenactment television shows.

The ending of the film is what may offend hardcore atheists, but I would posit that The Book of Clarence is a witty exploration of why so many of us believe in a higher power in the first place, and the material power structures which have influenced said belief. For a movie about a preacher, it really isn’t preachy at all. It’s not here to tell you what to think. It’s here to lead to thoughtful conversation. That’s one of the most positive things movies can do at their very best. | George Napper

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *