The Book of Clarence

The Book of Clarence
The Book of Clarence
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“The Book of Clarence,” a religious epic written by Jeymes Samuel, has been hailed as an over the top film that fails to deliver. The story centers around a street hustler named Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) who lives in Jerusalem during AD 33. In his script for this movie, Samuel attempts to make a farce out of an exploitation flick while striving for political relevance where it is not necessary because he mistakenly believes all black movies must be important. “The Harder They Fall” marks Samuel’s directorial debut which shows us how precise-minded he can be as a filmmaker but also that there is such thing as too much bending over backward to subvert genres until they become incomprehensible.

On the surface, “The Book of Clarence” seems like anything but religious: Despite being one of Jesus’ apostles, Clarence’s twin brother Thomas (also played by Stanfield) is a devout atheist who deals drugs and consumes them himself too frequently. His world consists mainly of club dens filled with barely dressed gyrating women and equally shady male figures.

What can we say? Clarence isn’t the sharpest tool in Jerusalem. Case in point: The opening scene sees him borrowing money from Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), a feared gangster, so that he can compete against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) in chariot races for some extra cash. It remains unclear why our protagonist thought this would be safe or profitable – if anything at all – given what was at stake; nevertheless, their showdown takes place on location (Matera, Italy standing in for ancient Jerusalem), and it proves to be surprisingly immersive even though practical effects were used here more than anywhere else throughout the movie. Like something out of “Ben Hur,” both characters’ chariots rumble down narrow streets pulled by real horses; Hardy’s cinematography makes every single bump and jolt feel real too thanks to POV shots from inside the carriage itself.

Needless to say, Clarence loses to Mary – and by a landslide. This means that he now has to figure out how to come up with enough money so as not to be killed by Jedediah. His first idea is baptism: He wants God to protect him because he believes this would make his life less difficult than it already is; however, John the Baptist (a great David Oyelowo) slaps some sense into him before he can act on such foolishness. Then, realizing that Jesus’ gang of made-men might offer better protection than any deity could ever provide for an atheist like himself, Clarence decides becoming one of them would be a wise move. Unfortunately, several things stand in his way here too: Thomas left their mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) behind along with everything else when he joined up with Jesus; moreover, Thomas isn’t thrilled about having Clarence around at all because not only does it embarrass him but also reminds him of what he did wrong; finally, while other disciples present different tasks which must be accomplished before they will free Barabbas (an impressive Omar Sy), our man fails miserably at these opportunities.

The problem is that none of these failures are funny enough – or quick enough – thus making funerals out of hustles. In turn “Book’s” weakest laughs show up just when you think they couldn’t get any staler as Samuel asks us if we believe in resurrection after half-assing three different deaths for our hero.

The movie’s slippery texture — demonstrated by the touchable costumes (loose robes and clever uses of gold) and delicately poised, but sweeping wide-angle shots — is its main welcoming feature. But Samuel’s boundless imagination holds back “The Book of Clarence.” He also composed the soundtrack for “The Harder They Fall.” Some songs create a discerning, post-soul mood, but other sequences slow down to molasses speed in order to show off the music rather than move the story along. The script’s already sprawling scope leaves even more — such as the romance between Clarence and Jebediah’s sister (Anna Diop), or the fraught dynamic between Judas (Michael Ward) and Jesus — as ill-defined blips. And yet no part of the movie is more undercooked than when Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) and the Roman Empire set their sights on Clarence. Samuel simply paints the Romans as a stand-in for white supremacy without further complication or argument; it’s a head-scratching political statement without a thesis.

None of this helps Stanfield’s misalignment with the material. After his years on “Atlanta,” one might think he’d be perfect for a sardonically cynical dark comedy. But he often plays these punchlines with either indifference or solemnity that undermines what’s intended to be funny about them. With that in mind, it bears mentioning that when an actor whiffs this badly, it is almost never entirely on them. Rather Samuel asks too much of his lead; he demands that Stanfield hold together the narrative’s various moods, the visual gags, the metaphysical questions being asked through characters who speak like they’re reciting Biblical verse and land an extreme gore finale most audiences are probably going to be unprepared to accept.

By then you’re left wondering why Samuel wanted to make a film about religious conversion at all — itself historically defined by suppression and erasure. Isn’t Black liberation about Black people having the freedom of thought to not be monolithic? If so then Samuel’s film would have done better to mine those complexities than dismiss them.

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