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The Book of Clarence Review

by Daniel Reynolds
3.0 out of 5.0 stars

There’s an aspirational giddiness to writer-director Jeymes Samuel’s film The Book of Clarence. It’s the work of someone who wants to make a grand statement, but also have a bit of fun while doing so. More films could stand to have that energy, regardless of their subject matter. And as it turns out, Samuel’s subject matter here just happens to be Jesus Christ, a figure to emulate, sure, but not exactly a laugh riot.

The central figure of The Book of Clarence is its titular namesake, the twin brother of the apostle Thomas (of doubting fame). Both characters are played by LaKeith Stanfield, who continues his run of fascinating and soulful performances. After a misguided chariot race gets him into trouble, Clarence decides to capitalize on the recent “Messiah” craze sweeping the land—a scheme that brings in the silver and also sets him on the path to meet John the Baptist (David Oyelowo), Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), and, yes, Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) too. It’s in these encounters that Samuel’s film takes off, playing fast and loose with Christian history while reimagining the all-white biblical epic of yore as a foundational Black narrative. In this light, the Romans of the film play as easy stand-ins for our current-day police (in both attitude and action), and the spiritual journey Clarence finds himself on is familiar in more ways than one. That the film works is a testament to everyone’s commitment to the bit, along with Samuel’s ability to foster exactly the mood he wants.

Given what we know of the “real” story here, The Book of Clarence eventually takes some grimmer turns in its distended third act. Yet right to the finale, there’s something sly to Samuel’s film. That he chose to film in Matera, Italy (the shooting location of Pasolini’s classic The Gospel According to St. Matthew) does not feel accidental either. Whether it works or not, Samuel believes in his film—and by the end, you might have faith too.

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