‘Book of Clarence’ review: A 13th apostle rewrites biblical history, with LaKeith Stanfield in the lead

‘Book of Clarence’ review: A 13th apostle rewrites biblical history, with LaKeith Stanfield in the lead

Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

The British musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel wanted to make a biblical epic like “Ben-Hur,” with a side order of biblical-adjacent “Spartacus,” but his way. The result is the satiric/earnest/rollicking/mellow amalgam called “The Book of Clarence,” starring LaKeith Stanfield as a dope-dealing striver in 33 A.D. Jerusalem.

The trailer looks like an action comedy, and it isn’t that, really, thought it contains both action (chariot street racing, gladiator bone-crunching) and comedy. Does it work? I’d say no, and sort of, and in the end, almost. The extreme tonal change-ups careen from full-on crucifixion violence to sight gags such as the light bulb appearing over Clarence’s head when he’s struck by his latest inspiration.

Broke and threatened with death by the local loan shark, Clarence hustles through his meager life as “a seller of ungodly herbs” with his friend Elijah (RJ Cyler). He takes care of his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who has been more or less forsaken by Clarence’s identical twin brother Thomas (also played by Stanfield, though without much differentiation).

Thomas has grand things on his agenda: He’s one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, on a date with biblical destiny. Clarence puts his bid in to join the circle, and ultimately lands on the idea of becoming a copycat Chosen One himself, performing fake miracles and gathering acolytes for prestige and profit.

It’s a ripe satiric premise, but “The Book of Clarence” wants more. Filming in Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson shot (and stabbed, and whipped) “The Passion of the Christ,” Samuel feeds his throwaway verbal jokes and anachronisms into a narrative played, disarmingly, for a spiritual story of one underestimated nobody’s path toward becoming a somebody.

Anna Diop, so good in the supernatural thriller “Nanny,” plays Lavinia, the local gangster’s sister; the tentative but palpable connection she has with Clarence is the movie’s grounding element. Once Clarence’s popularity draws the interest of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), the movie’s tangle of intentions gets knotted up in some frustrating ways. Is the movie best served by the full-on Gibson-esque gore in the culminating scenes? Does it work to follow nail-pounding and anguished screams with wisecracks from those dying on the cross?

The cast includes Omar Sy as the noble, unkillable gladiator slave Barabbas, freed by Clarence in his first conspicuous act of valor; David Oyelowo as a testy, waterboarding John the Baptist; and the reliably splendid Alfre Woodard as the Mother Mary, who in one comic highlight discusses the whole virgin birth business with a puzzled Clarence. Teyana Taylor, coming off her excellent work in “One Thousand and One,” doesn’t get nearly enough to do as a fierce Mary Magdalene.

As for Stanfield, he’s a watchful, uniquely charismatic actor in nearly any context, though this context proves especially challenging. His determinedly low-key line readings have a way of flattening out the movie’s energy. On the other hand, would a more classically trained “Bible epic technique” performer have made “The Book of Clarence” more persuasive, or just more harrumphy? Who’s to say? I’m all over the place on a movie that’s all over the place.

Samuel’s first feature, the 2021 Western “The Harder They Fall,” was all over the place, too, more successfully. That one, like this one, had the benefit of Samuel’s terrific soundtrack. Samuel — whose musical stage name is the Bullitts — consistently bails out his latest movie with a dozen or two songs in a supple half-dozen complementary styles, here featuring a song featuring Jay-Z, elsewhere leaning into Old Hollywood orchestral sweep or solo harp. The more this filmmaker can learn about matching his musical taste and invention with cinematic tonal range and control worthy of those sounds, the harder we’ll fall for whatever he does next.



2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material and smoking)

Running time: 2:16

How to watch: In theaters Friday


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