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There’s Nothing Else Like The Book of Clarence, for Better and Worse

British musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel gleefully laid claim to the western on behalf of Blackness in his feature debut. 2021’s The Harder They Fall cast an array of actual historical figures — cowboys who were born into slavery, mixed-race outlaws, and pioneering lawmen — as characters in a hard-charging fictional story of betrayal and revenge. The Harder They Fall was cool as ****, cool to the point of exhaustion, while also benefiting from a red-hot ensemble cast that included Zazie Beetz, Danielle Deadwyler, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield, and then-rising star Jonathan Majors. In his second feature, The Book of Clarence, Samuel tries to do something similar with the biblical epic, with murkier results. Part of the problem is that the genre he’s tackling, one that includes The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, is a lot mustier than the western, which may be in a perpetual state of revision but has never really gone away. It’s never entirely clear if The Book of Clarence is aiming to refresh the idea of the religious period piece, subvert it, or reclaim it. At times the film feels like it’s trying to do all three at once. It begins as a comedy, takes a turn toward the earnest, and ends with a sort of genial blasphemy. There’s definitely nothing else like it out there, for better and worse, and even if it doesn’t work, there’s something admirable about how at ease the film is with its own erratic rhythms.

Samuel reunites with The Harder They Fall star Stanfield for The Book of Clarence, and if you’re going to pick an actor to play identical twins in a pseudo-scriptural stoner saga, there’s no one better at rolling with the punches. Stanfield is Clarence, a low-level thief and drug dealer (of “lingonweed”) in Jerusalem in 33 AD, and also the uptight Thomas, who has distanced himself from his disreputable sibling after leaving home to become a disciple of Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock). Unlike his brother, Clarence is an avowed non-believer — a sleepy-eyed pragmatist whose primary concerns are caring for his mother Amina (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and securing the affections of the beautiful Varinia (Anna Diop), the sister of local gangster Jedediah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). Complicating the latter goal is the fact that Clarence owes Jedediah a lot of money after losing the chariot race that kicks the film off to a formidable Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor). The Book of Clarence was filmed in Matera, Italy, whose historical quarters have frequently stood in for biblical settings, and all of its characters wear old-timey robes and, aside from Clarence, speak in indeterminate period-piece accents. But the film’s also freely anachronistic, from Samuel’s own R&B-inflected score to the eons-old take on a club where Jedediah hangs out.

At the start, at least, The Book of Clarence plays like Ben-Hur by way of Friday, with an unhurried plot — Clarence and his best friend, Elijah (RJ Cyler), try to figure out how not to end up smeared across the cobblestones by Jedediah and his crew — providing an excuse to get the characters from one hangout to another. The movie’s never better than in these early acts, which have a nonchalant charm enhanced by the exuberance Samuel can bring to his filmmaking. When Clarence and Elijah swing by a ****** bar to partake in their own supply, their highs are rendered literally, floating them into the air. When Clarence convinces Varinia to join him at ancient Jerusalem’s answer to a nightclub, the attendees break into a dance number that ends with an iris encircling the lovers on the cusp of a kiss. But the shaggy comedy falls away as the film progresses, and as Clarence decides to solve his predicament by pretending to be a messiah himself, and fundraising accordingly with the help of Elijah, ***** Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin), and Barabbas (Omar Sy), a gladiator he frees from slavery. Naturally, this transforms him despite himself, and the more earnest The Book of Clarence gets, the less enjoyable it becomes. Samuel has described himself as more spiritual than religious, and his film has amusingly little interest in the substance of what its Jesus (who’s essentially portrayed as a superhero) has been preaching. It becomes more about having faith in oneself than about faith-based messaging, leading to Clarence being brutally crucified thanks to his own self-actualization.

That The Book of Clarence’s irreligious take on martyrdom manages to be cornier than a denominational one is impressive, though it attests to Samuel’s tendency to focus on details over any bigger picture. The Book of Clarence may be sleeker than Life of Brian, the film it ultimately most brings to mind, but the Monty Python comedy is far more coherent and ends up being more daring because of it. The Book of Clarence pursues its guiding idea, to make space in the biblical epic for Blackness, without giving a deeper consideration to the forces that shaped the genre it strives to ***** open. There’s a running joke in the film about a beggar played by Benedict Cumberbatch, one of a handful of non-Black cast members, who when finally cleaned up is mistaken for Jesus because he looks so “pure and white and so trustworthy.” It’s a punchline about the persistent whitening of Jesus in art and entertainment that feels particularly untethered in context, given that The Book of Clarence itself gives no acknowledgment that Jerusalem in 33 AD was a real place filled with real, un-Cumberbatch-looking people in addition to being a setting for biblical stories. The film approaches its genre of choice strictly as that — as another style of movie to be remixed — and while it features plenty of directorial promise, the end result is ultimately hollow.

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