The Book Of Clarence


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Book Of Clarence
"Simply put, I don't know what it's trying to do, and I don't know if it does either."

The Book Of Clarence postulates apostle traits for an invented figure whose place among the apocrypha opens with a chariot race. That's a competition with a heavy wager to pay off a debt to a criminal figure, and over-leveraged borrowing is everywhere in the film.

The presence of a parallel Messiah can't but be compared to Life Of Brian. This was filmed in Matera, the Unesco heritage Italian village carved into the cliffs of a steep valley which was also where The Passion Of The Christ was shot. If those seem uncomfortable tonal companions then know that The Book Of Clarence is full of similar variety, with similarly mixed results.

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Lakeith Stanfield's charisma does a lot of the lifting, from stolen cloaks to various spirits. Omar Sy as the slave gladiator Barabbas first appears wearing a helmet that seems to be based on the mask worn by rapper MF Doom, itself based on the mask worn by Russel Crowe's Gladiator. Though based in the US, and inspired by Fantastic Four villain Dr Doom, Daniel Dumile was from the UK. That's one of several transatlantic elements and the film is full of them.

Writer/director/composer Jeymes Samuel provides, by my count, 12 songs on the soundtrack. A third feature, it's a swords and sandal epic that follows Westerns They Die By Dawn and The Harder They Fall. Filming in Italy with an international cast, advances in special effects mean that miracles can be achieved even with a relatively small budget. Samuel has some tricks he's clearly fond of: scene transitions through portal close-ups, recurrent crucifixion poses, and a bit of split screen that seems to be sampling the Seventies.

The Book Of Clarence is actually three: The Thirteenth Apostle, The New Messiah, The Crucifixion. They have title cards that feel ripped from something like 1961's King Of Kings or John Wayne's The Greatest Story Ever told or the Coens' Hail Caesar! Among those weird accents are some bits of strangeness. A recurring 'joke' involves a love interest being the only one to pronounce Clarence with two syllables. In a largely Black British cast, an early and repeated use of the word "gypsy" is one of several places of discomfort. I could pick at what feel like continuity errors in the placement of stigmata but these are small issues in comparison to The Book Of Clarence's largest problem.

Simply put, I don't know what it's trying to do, and I don't know if it does either. There's a revelation or two, even some changes of heart, but many of them feel unearned. It's not an act of devotional endurance nor is it an act of heretical comedy. It's got some spirituality, but not much, it's got some jokes, but not many, it's got some great actors but doesn't do much with them. There are small roles for James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tom Glynn-Carney does something interesting with a role that's channeling modern American policing. You can't spell LAPD without AD, but at 129 minutes The Book Of Clarence is longer than an LP. Recurrent motifs and repeated sections are of the era of disco remixes, but those sometimes drag and the film does too.

That's despite some entertaining turns. David Oyelowo's John the Baptist is a percussive preacher, Michael Ward's Judas carries several conflicts including one about bread and gravy, as Jesus Nicholas Pinnock gets to bring a touch of The Matrix to a stoning and a conversation with Alfre Woodard as Mary suggests there's been a relatively common doctrinal confusion with what the Immaculate Conception actually is. Teyana Taylor's Mary Magdelene is part of a set of updates that owe as much to Star Wars as any Psalm. That includes a blue-painted dancer in a nightclub, a scene that's one of the innumerable moments that seems cribbed from somewhere else.

It might seem like I hated it, but I am hardly without creative sin so I am not here to cast stones. It was diverting enough, but it mostly served to remind me to find out if Holy Flying Circus was available on the iPlayer. It isn't, but the BBC Four film is currently on Amazon's Prime. I laughed much more at that than I did at this, and that had several more clever things to say about satire than anything here. The Book Of Clarence is diverting enough, but I'm not going to preach its virtues. There are enough things to catch one's eyes that for this I have no need to proselytise. If The Book Of Clarence had been one I wouldn't have waited for the film, and even though it isn't my advice is the same.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2024
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The Book Of Clarence packshot
A man tries to turn the rising celebrity of Christ to his own advantage.

Director: Jeymes Samuel

Writer: Jeymes Samuel

Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, David Oyelowo, Babs Olusanmokun, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Anna Diop, Teyana Taylor, Omar Sy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Micheal Ward, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Caleb McLaughlin, Chase Dillon, RJ Cyler

Year: 2023

Runtime: 136 minutes

Country: US


London 2023

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