Presenting the story of a struggling “nobody” whose exploits run parallel with those of Jesus of Nazareth in AD33, “The Book of Clarence” is less “Life of Brian” and more a fan-fiction version of the gospels, though the eponymous star of Jeymes Samuel’s latest film (played by LaKeith Stanfield) does share the Monty Python protagonist’s co-living situation with his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). And, much like Brian, he’s a “very naughty boy,” at least early on.
Unlike “Life of Brian” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Samuel’s New Testament reworking is unlikely to offend anyone of Christian faith, outside of outright racists or people who strongly object to use of the term “motherfucker.” Giving the final days of Christ a contemporary, allegorical spin, “The Book of Clarence” is more concerned with entertainment value than delivering a sermon. The results are tonally erratic, but absolutely interesting, at the very least.
Residing in Jerusalem, Clarence is not the most spiritual of people, favoring logic over belief. He considers Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) to be a fraud, though the fact that his twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield) went off to be one of Jesus’s 12 apostles when their mother was gravely ill is also a factor that drives some of this disdain. That said, Clarence does have some respect for the cult of celebrity that has been built around Jesus and the apostles, and he sees an opportunity to both save his own skin and boost his social standing by joining their ranks. Clarence owes a considerable debt to local gangster Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), while also pining for that same man’s sister (Anna Diop), and he believes that a religious awakening (or, at least, the presentation of one) will appeal to the former’s spiritual side.
Too bad Clarence can’t quite keep a handle on his skepticism. His attempt to get baptized prompts a debate with and a slap from John the Baptist (David Oyelowo, clearly having a blast with his one scene), while brother Thomas immediately calls out his bullshit when he rocks up to the apostles’ hangout, looking to gain permission from the absent Jesus to join the gang. Instead, Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward) proposes that Clarence prove his mettle by performing an honorable deed — or at least try to. Perhaps then they can know his intentions to join were pure, because the quest at hand would seem to almost guarantee his demise.
Accompanied by faithful friends Elijah (RJ Cyler) and Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin), Clarence is dispatched to free all of the gladiators kept under the watch of a local slaver (Babs Olusanmokun). Instead of killing him on the spot, the slaver offers freedom for one man, as long as Clarence can best the gladiator in combat. In the first of the film‘s various miracles in the face of death, Clarence does manage to defeat the hulking Barabbas the Immortal who, as played by Omar Sy, is the film’s most entertaining recurring character: he believes he cannot die, based on the number of times he’s survived sword wounds that would have killed anyone else.
The visual construction of their fight, and the surrounding dialogue, provides the film’s most overt nods to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” though there’s curiously a moment that appears to be an allusion to Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” as Barabbas joins what fast becomes Clarence’s own group of disciples. Clarence’s charlatan goals become more ambitious after another heated conversation with brother Thomas: “Knowledge is stronger than belief. You believe in God because you know nothing of the world, which is why you do the shit you do,” he tells the apostle. Clarence decides he’s going to become “the new Messiah,” pulling moves from Jesus’ playbook, only with the intention to keep donated coins for himself and his complicit comrades.
If all this sounds a tad convoluted, it absolutely is, and this is just a taste of the first act. The admirably ambitious, though undeniably messy film is divided into three chapters, or “books,” the first being “The 13th Apostle” and the second “The New Messiah.” The third book’s title will not be spoiled here, but the film lays out its cards regarding Clarence’s fate in its very first shot, zooming into his face in such a way that you half expect to hear a record scratch, with Stanfield as narrator saying, “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.” While peppering comedy and satirical jabs throughout, Samuel’s film is too earnest to dare employ such a glib mission statement upfront.
The follow-up to his Netflix-backed feature “The Harder They Fall,” a frontier Western, “The Book of Clarence” has Samuel back on directing, writing, and composing duties, once more producing an all-Black spin on a genre that has, for the most part, not been especially conducive to meaningful onscreen representation: the biblical epic. The few familiar white actors popping up are mostly playing Roman oppressors. There’s James McAvoy as Pontius Pilate, “House of the Dragon” star Tom Glynn-Carney playing another cocky young man you immediately hope will get his comeuppance, and Irish actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the loathsome centurion whose dialogue drives the allegorical allusions to more modern forms of racism.
The exception to the Roman rule is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, who shows up at the start looking like The Man Behind Winkie’s from “Mulholland Dr.,” playing a homeless beggar who is repeatedly injured and robbed during the early stretch, as a display of Clarence’s more wicked tendencies before his path towards holiness. If you don’t immediately recognize that this is Cumberbatch (because he can rarely fully hide that very specific cadence of his), an eventual visual punchline with this background character hammers it home in one of the movie’s very best jokes.
There’s a palpable love for such biblical or bible-adjacent films as “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe,” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” running throughout “The Book of Clarence.” Largely filmed in and around Matera in Italy, substituting for Jerusalem, Samuel’s film — with cinematographer Rob Hardy’s assistance — manages to recall some of the framing and scale of those films, with the locations feeling genuinely populated with actual people and not CGI extras. The film’s title and chapter card design is also straight out of a 1950s religious blockbuster.
There are attempts to modernize and not just recreate, however. Samuel wrote the majority of the short songs scattered throughout the film, which lend the proceedings a musical feel, though just one funky dance sequence in Jedediah’s club ever explicitly flirts with that genre’s visual formulas. Elsewhere, moments displaying the abilities of Pinnock’s true Messiah — halting thrown stones mid-air, healing wounds through touch — play like a superhero origin story movie. And a destructive chariot race in the film’s second sequence, pitting Clarence and Elijah against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), naturally brings to mind “Ben-Hur,” but here it’s taking place through the streets of Jerusalem, filmed somewhat like a “Fast & Furious” entry (the ones primarily still focused on illegal street races), where we get POV shots from the perspective of people flying to the ground as their vehicle is sabotaged by interfering spectators.
Much like The Gospel According to Vin Diesel, guaranteeing happiness and security for family— both biological and makeshift — proves to be a major theme for “The Book of Clarence.” There’s also the matter of Clarence developing belief in himself and pride as a human being. This exploration of self-discovery and finding one’s own power is the most successful of the many threads at play, though the emotional weight of Clarence’s final sacrifice is at threat of being undermined by the deflating return of what’s otherwise one of the film’s most successful running gags; awkwardly inserted into a key dramatic moment as though the filmmakers thought that things were getting a little too sincere.
One could read that as just as much of an allusion to the modern superhero movie model as the scenes displaying Jesus’ powers, though a little more faith in Clarence as the main focus of his own ending would have lead the film down an even stronger path.
“The Book of Clarence” premiered at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival. Sony will release it in theaters on Friday, January 12.