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Reel Review - The Book of Clarence
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Published January 2024


The Book of Clarence


Rating: PG-13

Genre: Action/Adventure, Christian, Comedy, Drama

Written & Directed by: Jeymes Samuel

Release Date: January 12, 2024

Runtime: 129 Minutes

Cast: LaKeith Stanfield as Clarence and Thomas; Anna Diop as Verullia; RJ Cyler as Elijah; Omar Sy as Barabbas; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Clarence's mother; Micheal Ward as Judas Iscariot; Nicholas Pinnock as Jesus Christ; James McAvoy as Pontius Pilate; Alfre Woodard as Mother Mary; David Oyelowo as John the Baptist; Benedict Cumberbatch as Benjamin

Review Courtesy: PluggedIn
Reviewer: Paul Asay



MOVIE REVIEW
It was Mary Magdalene’s fault. Yep, Clarence and sidekick Elijah were doing just fine in the chariot race, ‘til Mary took the contest straight into Jerusalem’s notorious gypsy district. (Mary never played fair.) One poison dart and one crash later, and Clarence lost the race, his coat, his horse and his chariot.

Worse yet, the horse and chariot weren’t technically his to lose. They belonged to a brothel owner named Jedediah the Terrible, who loaned him both for 30 days. That was, oh, about 29 days ago. And if Clarence can’t pay Jedediah back, he’ll be crucified.

That’s not just a figure of speech, either. Yeah, Clarence will be, quite literally, crucified.

Well, he’d rather not bear that particular cross (or have that cross bear him). And that means he needs to find either some money, or some protection, fast.

But maybe if he could find religion, he just might be able to buy some time.

Clarence has heard all about this guy in town named Jesus of Nazareth. Why, Clarence’s own twin brother, Thomas, is part of Jesus’ crew. And the whole lot of ‘em are as popular as all get-out in Jerusalem these days. Maybe if Clarence could get in good with Jesus and his gang, Jedediah might just leave him alone.

‘Course, becoming an apostle requires faith. And that’s something that Clarence just doesn’t have. So when the apostles laugh him out, and Thomas once again scolds him for being a no-account nobody, Clarence gets an even better idea:

If Jesus can pretend to be the Messiah, why not Clarence?

All he needs to do is pretend to heal a few folks, bring a couple of others back to life, crib Jesus’ teachings and parrot them as his own and voila! Instant messianic credibility. What does he have to lose?

Turns out, he could lose quite a bit: His life. His soul. His whole world. But if things go reallysouth, Clarence just might find something, too.

POSITIVE ELEMENTS
Clarence really is a shiftless layabout, a guy whose prospects look pretty dim. And his desire to masquerade as a messiah certainly doesn’t speak well of his character. But John—the Baptist, that is—perhaps sees a hint of something better in him. “In spite of your selfish ways, there is a beautiful soul in there, somewhere,” he says, rather grudgingly. And as the cinematic pages of The Book of Clarence turn, we see that “beautiful soul” slowly unfurl.

We learn that when Thomas left home (perhaps to follow Christ, though that’s not explicitly stated), he left Clarence to care for their sick mother. Ever since then, Clarence has continued to care for his mom—even though he’s barely able to support them both. Clarence seems to have a heart for the hurting and oppressed. Part of his disbelief stems from struggling to reconcile faith in an engaged, loving God with all of the suffering and dying children he sees.

When Clarence embarks on his initial quest to become Jesus’ 13th apostle, Judas Iscariot tells him to prove his devotion by embarking on an impossible quest: to free all the area’s gladiatorial slaves. Clarence isn’t immediately successful, but seeing those slaves makes a powerful impression on him. And when he has a choice between helping himself and helping those slaves, he makes the sacrificial act of choosing the latter.

When that choice is made, Clarence is clearly not the same person we met. Somehow, against all odds and even his own intentions, the would-be Messiah finds humility. A man who wanted to be “somebody” begins to place other people’s needs above his own. He has become someone who models forgiveness, and he reveals depth of character that even he never suspected he had.

The film comes with a racial subtext as well: The mostly white Romans treat the mostly Black Judeans with hateful disdain, and we hear strong echoes of our own racially divided times here. But the predominant message in the story stresses that love and nonviolence are the way forward.

SPIRITUAL ELEMENTS
The Book of Clarence is set in the time of Christ, and it explicitly riffs on Jesus’ own ministry. You can’t see The Book of Clarence and not think about the real Gospels.

As mentioned, Clarence is the twin brother of Thomas, Jesus’ soon-to-be-doubting disciple. (Interestingly, the name Thomas means twin.) And while Thomas has little patience with Clarence’s lack of faith, shiftless attitude and wayward ways, Clarence has nothing but scorn for Thomas traipsing after Jesus.

“Knowledge is stronger than belief,” Clarence says. “I possess the knowledge that there is no god,” adding that those who claim that there is a god are either “liars or fools.” (We could write a good thousand words on that statement alone, but we must move on.)

But he sees the value in conversion, and the first step is getting baptized—by John the Baptist himself. John sees through the ruse, but he asks God to show pity on the guy, because he’s “dumb and stupid.” And John hopes that God will eventually reveal Himself to Clarence, show the doubter the glories of heaven “and then throw him out!”

When he decides to become a messiah, Clarence visits Jesus’ mother, Mary, to ask her how He performs all his “tricks.” “My Son has never performed a trick in His life,” Mary insists, and the two talk at length about Jesus’ nature—including the fact that He was born of a virgin. Clarence isn’t swallowing the idea that an angel visited both Mary and Joseph (who is also present in the conversation). “

“This is the story you’re going with?” Clarence asks wryly.

“It’s the only story there is,” Mary says. And the way she says it, it’s obvious she’s not just speaking about the truth of her singular story, but that Jesus’ story encompasses the cosmos.

“My dear, dear child,” Mary tells him. “You find faith, and you find all the answers you seek.”

Clarence still doesn’t bite. He embarks on his career as a false messiah—“curing” Elijah of blindness and lameness again and again. Clarence even pretends to raise him from the dead. And he speaks to the masses—leaning into Jesus’ words but giving them a “knowledge is stronger than belief” twist. And his false message finds receptive ears. Soon, he’s raking in the coin—even as he seems to struggle more and more with the deception.

Others in Clarence’s orbit become convinced that Jesus is the real deal. Elijah, Clarence’s longtime sidekick, sees Christ save Mary Magdalene from a stoning (supernaturally stopping the stones themselves). Barrabas—a slave whom Clarence successfully freed—insists over and over again that God is real and worthy of worship (even though Barrabas helps Clarence in his false ministry, too).

[Spoiler Warning] Eventually—just as Clarence makes a break from his false messiah gig—the Romans arrest Clarence as a false messiah. He stands before Pilate and admits his misdeeds to save his skin, even though his misdeeds themselves are grievous crimes. Ultimately, Pilate asks him to prove, definitively, that he is not the Messiah by walking on water. But, lo and behold, Clarence walks on the water—much to his and everyone else’s shock. The act earns Clarence a death sentence—death by crucifixion. But Clarence has found his faith. He still adheres to his adage that knowledge is stronger than belief. But he tells someone that he doesn’t believe in God: “I know.” And he soon undergoes a very passion-like journey to the cross.

Elsewhere, we see the real Jesus in action throughout the movie, freezing time, blasting stones and raising people from the dead. He causes money to fall from the sky and clearly knows the thoughts of the people around Him. He’s loving and merciful. His disciples, though, are a fractious bunch—often arguing. And we see Judas engaged in some very Judas-like things.

A former beggar, after getting cleaned up, is quickly embraced as yet another false messiah—with people marveling how trustworthy he looks. (This secondary storyline serves as commentary on two things: One, how we can be persuaded of someone’s holiness based on how that person look. And two, how a white messiah might seem more messianic than a Black one.) The beggar is clearly no Christlike avatar, though: He prays that God might bring down some fire and brimstone on those who persecute him.

We get a glimpse of some pharisees, staring down at a procession from on high. Barrabas claims to be immortal. We hear references to angels, and one man compares himself to the devil. Almost everyone has a familiar biblical name.

Religiously themed songs comprise a hefty chunk of The Book of Clarence’s in-movie soundtrack. There’s also an allusion to a gospel that Thomas is writing—a reference to a noncanonical Gnostic text. And there’s a flashback to Jesus crafting birds from clay and giving them life, which is from another noncanonical, Gnostic text supposedly written by Thomas.

SEXUAL CONTENT
As mentioned, Jedediah the Terrible seems to own a brothel. We see him lounging in said house of ill repute, as a woman bedecked in blue paint and little else dances for the pleasure of Jedediah and other attendees. (The dancer wears a moss-like covering over her private parts.) Employees and customers are seen canoodling in the background.

Clarence is smitten with Jedediah’s sister, and he does his best to prove that he’s worthy of her (which is one element that sets Clarence’s ill-begotten plan in movement). His mother encourages the romance, telling Clarence that she wants to make sure that he doesn’t die a virgin. (Clarence tells his mother that he’s not, but she tells him what he does alone, behind a curtain in their shared home, doesn’t count.)

People dance together, sometimes sultrily. A couple kisses. A woman is about to be killed for “sexing” the Romans. Jesus makes a comment to one of the woman’s would-be killers, suggesting that Jesus knows the man is engaged in bestiality.

Clarence and Mary talk quite a bit about whether she was truly a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Mary makes it quite clear she was, and that she was minding her “own virgin business” when she received a visit from an angel.

VIOLENT CONTENT
The movie opens with Clarence’s crucifixion: He and several other men hang from crosses, and we see the nails driven into their hands. We later see the Romans in the act of crucifying him; Clarence’s face is bloodied and disfigured. And while we don’t see the nails driven into the flesh, we do see him scream in pain. (Clarence carries his own cross up to the place of execution, and he endures all the torture and indignities that you’d expect.)

When Clarence tries to free the gladiatorial slaves (at Judas’ behest, you’ll remember), the slaves’ owner initially tells the gladiators to kill Clarence with their bare hands. He quickly amends this and has Clarence fight Barrabas, his best fighter. The scrum involves swords, nets, vicious punches and flying bodies, but it ultimately ends without a death.

Someone is skewered several times with massive spears, and he seems to die. (We see the weapons sticking out of the body and the bloody wounds they leave.) Another man is impaled on a spear. A bloodied woman stands chained to a wall. A man rushes out to protect her from the impending stoning, and his back bears the impact of several such stones.

A chariot race ends with a violent-but-harmless crash. Mary slaps Clarence a few times for his disrespect. And when John baptizes him, he holds Clarence under the water for far longer than is strictly necessary.

CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE
One use of the f-word, paired with “mother.” We also hear two s-words, a likely use of the n-word in a background song, and several other single-use profanities, including “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and “pr–k.”

DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT
Clarence and Elijah are drug dealers when the movie opens—selling marijuana to make ends meet. We see them engaged in several deals, and both light up some hefty marijuana blunts themselves. (Clarence also mentions that he’s sometimes resold stolen Roman honey wine.)

The two of them also go to a hookah parlor, where people toke stronger mind-impairing drugs. We see several users literally float under the influence of such drugs, and it’s there that Clarence hatches with his scheme to become an apostle.

OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS
Clarence really is a shiftless schemer when the story opens. He earns money through illegal means and seems perpetually on the wrong side of the law.

When he becomes a “messiah,” though, his deeds feel all the more reprehensible—lying to would-be followers and taking their money. Characters in the film mention these grievous misdeeds, including Jedediah’s sister (whom Clarence swoons over). She tells him that people can grow. But while pretending to be a messiah has given Clarence a measure of prestige, what he’s doing doesn’t represent growth: It’s all a lie.

Clarence apparently smells pretty bad when the movie opens, and several characters say as much.

The Romans here are, naturally, terrible. They treat everybody under their collective thumb (who are mostly, but not entirely, Black) with abuse and disdain.

CONCLUSION
In 1979, the British comedy troupe Monty Python released Life of Brian, a farce predicated on the life and times of Jesus Christ. It featured a Nazarene (named Brian, of course) who, through no real fault of his own, is mistaken as the Messiah. Filled with irreligious humor and featuring a grand musical finale where people sing while being crucified, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was considered blasphemous by many. And many might still agree.

I walked into The Book of Clarence expecting something like an updated Life of Brian—though perhaps, in our increasingly secular age, something far more cutting and dismissive. It’d be long on gags, heavy on social commentary and very short on faith. Imagine my surprise.

Certainly The Book of Clarence is irreverent. But it’s not irreligious. Indeed, for all its jokes, the film takes faith very seriously indeed, and one could almost even call this a Christian film—one with more explicit religious content than many a movie churned out by the faith-based film industry.

We live in such a secular age, where religion can be reviled, and belief can be mocked. So for The Book of Clarence to land on such an unequivocable truth—Jesus is the real deal and He cares for you—was beautifully unexpected.

That said, The Book of Clarence might not be one to share with your family or small group just yet.

One could certainly quibble with the theology found in The Book of Clarence. We have a couple of feints toward Gnostic texts. And however the story ultimately lands, a lot of folks will feel the road it takes to get there—full of disrespect and borderline blasphemous markers—isn’t worth the trip.

And then there are the other forms of content we see here: a dancer entertaining brothel customers; some sparse-but-strong profanities. Plenty of drug use. Some bloody moments of torture.

The Book of Clarence is entertaining, insightful and a wee bit unhinged. And it ultimately points to Jesus and asks viewers to take Him more seriously than the movie itself. But the movie’s problems should make you think twice before adding it to your own cinematic canon.

REVIEW BY PAUL ASAY
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.