Review – The Book of Clarence

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Overview

Synopsis Clarence is a common criminal living in first century Judea, who finds himself in danger after losing a bet and seeking a way to protect his life by turning to Jesus for help.

Length 2 Hours 16 Minutes

Release Date October 11, 2023 (LFF), January 12, 2024 (United States)

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Tristar Pictures/Sony Picture Releasing

Directing Jeymes Samuel

Writing Jeymes Samuel

Composition Jeymes Samuel

Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch

When the first trailer for Book of Clarence was released last year, it did not make me feel confident in the film. It appeared to be another religious satire in the style of Life of Brian or First Temptation of Christ, something that was merely exploitational or made tired arguments about the dangers of organized religion. At the very least, it looked like its primary mission was to be a shallow political satire set against the events of the Bible.

However, my expectations were somewhat subverted by the fact the movie was far more reverent than I had expected. What could’ve been a cynical work of cliche political commentary was an overall more ambitious and sincere attempt to create a modern version of Ben Hur with a more diverse audience in mind. Unfortunately, the movie’s January release would suggest the studio didn’t have much hope for the final product.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some bloody and gruesome imagery, including a character being crucified, with other characters being stabbed, bleeding, and dying
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent severe language throughout
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters regularly drink alcohol and smoke a drug that allows the person to fly
Sexual Content: Several crude sexual references and jokes throughout, including masturbation jokes, a scene in a strip club, and jokes about Mary’s virginity
Spiritual Content: The film is set against the events of the Gospels, with a main character who is attempting to mimic Christ’s ministry for personal gain, only to realize he is wrong
Other Negative Content: Some crude imagery and story ideas, with some questionable creative license taken on some of the events of the Gospels
Positive Content: Themes of justice, truth, and humility in the face of God’s truth

Review

Author’s Note: The original draft of this piece unintentionally contained outdated terminology. We did not realize was insensitive and removed it. We apologize for the error.

The Book of Clarence marks the second major cinematic work of British musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, also as his stage name The Bullitts, following his 2021 Netflix western The Harder They Fall. Having been raised in an immigrant Catholic household, he speaks in his interviews positively about his love for the Biblical epics his family would watch as a kid, such as Ben Hur and Jesus of Nazareth. In his interview with Deadline, he talks about the desire to dig into the minutia of the Bible, while creating an original story that embraces the values of diversity and inclusion.

“I feel that the Bible, just as a book, has so much minutia it doesn’t cover, like where Jesus bought his sandals from or where people will get their hair done. There are so many little things it doesn’t cover and I’m fascinated by those things just because of the everyday necessities in life. I just thought this was a brilliant way to show how much we are all similar, how much really nothing’s changed whilst showing how much I love that genre.”

One can certainly sense enthusiasm in his words, given that he’s familiar with the scriptures and looks upon his religious upbringing positively. Unfortunately, The Book of Clarence proves to be an unfocused and underdeveloped work of Biblical fanfiction; clearly sincere in its desire to understand Christ, but lacking a certain nuance with his character-writing that would give the film a clearer sense of pacing and motivation.

The story follows the life of Clarence, the estranged twin brother of the Apostle Thomas. When he loses a street race with Mary Magdalene and finds himself indebted to bad people in Jerusalem, Clarence attempts to join the Apostles for protection, even though he’s an atheist and criminal. When this doesn’t work, he doubles down and decides to proclaim himself a new Messiah, traveling around Israel to proclaim the value of knowledge over belief and raising money through fake miracles; eventually drawing negative attention from Roman authorities in the process.

Despite Samuel’s desire to create something historically accurate, the movie is certainly filled with modern concessions and eccentricities. The cast of first-century Middle Eastern Jews is cast by Black actors while Romans are cast by white actors like James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, as part of a very modern commentary on racial violence. This is certainly a forgivable expression of creative license, as race and colonization are core themes of the film.

Samuel repeatedly argues that the character of Clarence is meant to simply be a normal guy, someone who looks like he’s from the hood. Unfortunately, these eccentricities do contribute to an atmosphere of general unfocusedness that permeates the film. It is one thing for a Biblical comedy to feel more like Monty Python than Ben Hur, lacking the grit and attention to detail of series like The Chosen, but The Book of Clarence feels like different three movies with different tones, themes, and strengths that don’t fit well together in practice.

The movie is divided into three “Books,” each focusing on a different part of Clarence’s life. At first, he’s just trying to become an Apostle, then he becomes a false Messiah, and finally, he comes into contact with the Romans who persecute him in a fashion that has direct thematic parallels to modern interactions between white police officers and Black Americans; with chauvinistic officers killing attacking fleeing suspects and overly persecuting the populations they control.

Unfortunately, most of these ideas are underdeveloped. They show up randomly in the last third of the story as heavy-handed metaphors and don’t take advantage of the Christian story to say something larger or more meaningful in the context of the greater story.

The movie does succeed in making a sincere contrast between the breathtaking nature of Jesus’s ministry, giving all of his scenes a sense of gravitas and ethereal wonder, and Clarence’s fake ministry. These scenes are all interspersed with Clarence’s hijinks, but it is hard to say exactly what the movie wants to say about the nature of false prophets and charismatic leaders. At times, the movie feels like it is a Bible movie in search of an idea, rather than a more straightforward commentary on police violence, cults of personality, or depictions of “White Jesus.”

The movie is also filled with some bizarre theological anachronisms. At one point, the apostles castigate Clarence for not believing in “the Immaculate Conception,” but the context of the scene suggests it’s talking about Jesus’s conception rather than Mary’s — as the Catholic term is historically defined. The movie also has some hiccups about the life of Barabbas, calling him “immortal” and showing him as not being in prison on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion. Pontius Pilate is depicted as a political snake who is required by Roman law to kill Messiahs, rather than someone who merely washed his hands of the situation. The Pharisees also play no role in the story, given that the bad guys are the Romans, while the Jewish authorities are depicted as Black religious leaders.

Unfortunately, The Book of Clarence’s efforts mostly come up short. It’s a weak comedy, shallow satire, and dramatic story with an underwhelming under-motivated main character who is too weighed down by doubt and personal faults to drive a story like this. It is full of ideas that could make for a sincere and powerful retelling of the Gospels, but it doesn’t know what to do with them.

At one point, I thought the story was actually going to secretly reveal that Clarence was the thief on the cross and this was his origin story, which would have been a compelling and sincere way to resolve a story about how a person can grapple with a lifetime of failure and regrets, but this doesn’t happen. The resolution we do get feels shallow like it’s scratching the surface of something powerful and struggling to realize it. It is a good idea in search of a more meaningful execution.

Positives

+ Fascinating Themes
+ Sincere Depiction of Jesus Christ
+ Great Soundtrack/Composition

Negatives

- Weak Script
- Underdeveloped Characters
- Heavy Handed Themes

The Bottom Line

The Book of Clarence is a film with a lot of ambition and good intentions behind it that mostly proves to be unfocused and dull in execution.

 

6.5

GUG Contributor

13 Comments

  1. Noah Thomas on March 25, 2024 at 12:01 am

    Excellent comment!



  2. Barbarus on March 16, 2024 at 9:22 pm

    I definitely agree that this seems racial. Christians are often too racist to acknowledge Jesus’ race, though they acknowledge Mary and Joseph are brown they act like Jesus isn’t.

    “Diversity” and other terminology here is only reinforcing it, especially when you complain that you’re reminded of modern police issues… while looking at the Roman guard… LITERALLY THE POLICE. LITERALLY ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THIS.



  3. Noah Thomas on February 11, 2024 at 8:32 pm

    “You should erase your identity because it makes me uncomfortable.” Interesting take for a Christian.



  4. Dan on February 11, 2024 at 2:24 pm

    This comment section shows just how racist the world still is. Who cares about the color or someone’s skin anymore? Seriously? What and why does the color of someone’s skin mean ANYTHING anymore? You want to know why? Because people want it to. People don’t want to be one group of people they want to be categorized. They want to be ganged up with other people that look like or think like them. The world today is just so petty. And before you attack me for my comment I have people of every race and religion within my family. Our Thanksgiving dinner looks like a gathering of people from all over the world. We all love each other and we all get along and there is no you’re black and she’s white or your Indian and he’s Asian. None of it. This is what made it clear to me that we really can live together and be happy and get along but only if we want to. That is the only issue though is no one wants to! I pray that one day we will all just see each other as people. Not black people or white people or Mexican people. Just people. Have a wonderful day and I love you all! God bless you all!



    • Noah Thomas on February 12, 2024 at 12:12 am

      “You should erase your identity because it makes me uncomfortable.” Interesting take for a Christian.



  5. Ozen on February 11, 2024 at 1:29 am

    Loved the book of clearence will Be having some movie viewings for all family and friends..



  6. Noah Thomas on January 24, 2024 at 6:31 pm

    This is a very unintelligent review. Please think twice about sharing your words with others; words can make the world a worse place. Your uninformed opinion, lack of grasp of this particular material and media in general, and inability to critically dialogue with your own faith makes the world a worse place. It would be better for you to be silent next time a movie comes out.



    • Ozen on February 11, 2024 at 1:35 am

      The Dr is right you’re racist……..



  7. Dr Marie on January 12, 2024 at 8:57 am

    You racist ass! Sub Saharan Africans?? You spew the same racist tropes and ignorance of history as a klan member. Africans rules the area north south east and west of that region. The Middle East was Africa at that time. The Suez Canal didn’t exist. You could walk there. Maybe you should travel??



    • Ciara on January 24, 2024 at 7:31 am

      You call yourself a Dr and then attack someone for having a well thought out, well written review. In no way is this Racist.

      Dear Author, I appreciate your review very much. As a woman of God I was weary to view this movie. Afraid that it was a modern hit on Christian views. But with your review I can see that as much as they tried to take Christian views seriously, the addition of the extra race related topics may have hindered it more than helped.

      Just because he’s black isn’t the problem I actually think that more characters in Bible stories should be black, like said above, Jesus was located in the middle east (not Africa) but close to it. So they definitely had darker skin than the images we depict. The problem is that they added so much modern-day race problems to a story that was never about race issues but specifically religious issues.



      • Ozen on February 11, 2024 at 1:21 am

        To you Missy jesus had hair said the Bible that looked like wool. And It go’s On to say skin was dark like copper. So if you don’t believe Christ, Jesus christ was a black man. Something is wrong with you. I would love for more people to see this movie. It should be closer than what happened in the bible. Because white men wrote the bible their own words.



      • Taria on March 16, 2024 at 9:18 pm

        “Modern day race problems” as if they weren’t issues back then… dumbass



    • Ozen on February 11, 2024 at 1:26 am

      Thank you Dr.Marie, I really think All people should see this movie. It will truly make you think. A lot of racist people don’t believe that the Christ head hair of wool, And skin dark copper according to the bible. So how,could christ be a white man.