It’s a testament to what strong filmmaking can afford a movie that forces itself to walk a tricky line. The Book of Clarence is far from the first feature to inject humor into a story set during biblical times. Monty Python’s Life of Brian obviously comes to mind, but even some of the older epics lean into their own self-serious nature, knowing that amusement can come from the depiction of certain characters. The key to success for the ones that truly stand out is having a perspective in mind. Simple ridicule doesn’t yield lasting results. Finding meaning within a story set around the days when religious persecution would lead to sanctioned death, and still landing jokes can go a long way. The Book of Clarence, while a bit too long and a bit too caught up on certain aspects of its expansive story, ultimately finds what it’s looking for, which largely stems from the strength of its lead actor.
Academy Award nominee LaKeith Stanfield stars as Clarence. Set in A.D. 33, Clarence is the twin brother of Thomas the Apostle (a clever bit of justification for a side story about this man). Struggling to keep himself and his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) living a decent life, let alone in debt to local money lenders, Clarence looks to capitalize on the rise of Jesus Christ. When his attempts to become the 13th Apostle fail, Clarence claims to be a new Messiah, putting him in the crosshairs of many, including Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy).
Director Jeymes Samuel made The Book of Clarence a follow-up to his hit Netflix-released western, The Harder They Fall. Samuel is following a similar path here, as his western featured an ensemble Black cast portraying real-life cowboys in a fun “what if?” scenario that brought all of them together. This film once again features an ensemble cast of Black actors primarily occupying the roles of characters found in the New Testament, whether it’s Omar Sy’s Barabbas, Alfre Woodard’s Mother Mary, Michael Ward’s Judas Iscariot, or David Oyelowo’s John the Baptist.
It’s easy to see what Samuel is going for. In a century’s time, there’s no studio feature film relying on a cast like this to portray characters who very likely looked closer to them than what’s usually depicted (and the subtle idea of relating Blacks to Jewish people hasn’t gone over my head either). Even with a blend of classic and anachronistic dialogue, there are choices to tell a story that doesn’t need to necessarily call out its visual angle (only a couple of choice moments play with this notion). Instead, The Book of Clarence relies on the cast’s talent to serve the angles this script has on what is to be living during this crucial point in time, with other satirical observations in mind.
As noted, this film really does provide Stanfield the time to shine. At its best, Samuel’s efforts as a writer do well to combine this film’s sense of humor with its guiding rhythm devoted to knowledge vs. faith. Stanfield can be hilarious, but his efforts as a dramatic lead (and even a potential action star) come through incredibly well here. Constantly challenged by those (especially his own brother) who see him as nothing, there’s an underlying thread focused on a man attempting to prove himself even as his ability to comprehend the idea of miracles around him is tested.
Samuel understands that simply finding ways to mock religion will go nowhere. Instead, he’s invested in drawing out how far faith can take someone and what it will take to bring over a skeptic. While the movie is not attempting too heavily to preach to the viewer about certain values, it has a sense of understanding that going too broad can only take a film like this so far (it’s notably rated PG-13, which is mainly for some language, a stoning, and crucifixion violence). Holding back in the ways it does means letting the film focus on character building, even as we watch various bits play out. Unfortunately, the balancing of this ensemble ends up hurting the proceedings a bit.
Were the film to hold its focus on Clarence and his journey, it feels as though the right amount of emphasis could be put on telling a comedic story informed by how he evolves. However, while I was convinced Jesus would merely be a figure discussed and seen on the periphery, he is a crucial supporting player in this story. Played by Nicholas Pinnock (star of the canceled but solid drama, For Life), there’s nothing wrong with how he plays the role, but the film’s script and momentum suffer because of how it includes him.
Coming in at over two hours without credits (long for a comedy), there’s a balance that feels off. It’s as if a more expansive cut could justify how Jesus and the other supporting characters could have factored in. That’s pure speculation, but as it stands, for all of the clever ways this film subverts well-known aspects of events occurring during this time and the way certain perceptions form, the attempts to solidify what it’s aiming for don’t quite come together when so specifically combining Clarence and Christ’s stories.
Outside of this qualm, The Book of Clarence does provide a lot of fun in various ways. Stanfield’s interactions with RJ Cyler as Clarence’s best friend, Elijah, and the other characters in this film allow for plenty of humor to come through. Opening with a chariot race and featuring a solid “sword and sandal” fight scene once again shows why Samuel is an interesting visual filmmaker to watch. Plus, the way this film puts in the work to make Omar Sy a bigger star in America than he already is has me appreciating those efforts.
As more than a slight attempt to wring humor out of its subject matter, I was compelled by the depth found in The Book of Clarence, even if it became a bit too messy when sorting out its structure. That said, Stanfield leads a compelling ensemble cast, and the work done in delving into a sense of style on Samuel’s part will have me continuing to look forward to what he invests his abilities into. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and while it may not be the holy grail of biblical comedies, it gets by on more than just bread and water.