Flicks With Nicki – The Book of ClarenceClarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in THE BOOK OF CLARENCE. Photo provided to Decaturish
What if Mary Magdalene raced chariots, and Thomas wasn’t the only man who doubted? I believe that Jesus wept, and in my heart, I know that Jesus laughed. But religion, all religions, tend to be humorless. Our God, gods, prophets, saints, and deities are not to be trifled with. I understand why historical reimaginings feel uncomfortable. We like the simplicity of allegory. We are used to the rote and rhetorical.
But I like irreverence.
Director Jeymes Samuel relies on our knowledge of the rote to ground us in the world of “The Book of Clarence.” How many times have you seen a Nativity story or Passion play? We are familiar with the idea of a miraculous birth and sacrificial death, but in this story, we focus on a character who doubts these tales.
Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is a troublemaker. He owes a great debt to the wrong guy and can’t seem to get his life in order. He hates the idea of belief and the power given to the messiahs of his time. Specifically, one named Jesus of Nazareth.
This is a comedy.
From the first moment, we see him on screen, Clarence’s hair is twisted and unruly. We may think it is a sign of his wild life, but we see a glimpse of light behind him like a halo, and the twists become a crown of thorns. This reminds us that he has the power to be a king and a martyr.
Clarence doesn’t believe. He holds nothing sacred, but he is loyal to his mother and friends. To get out of debt, he embarks on a journey to become the 13th apostle and then another messiah. But becoming a messiah brings unwanted attention to Clarence’s life and lies.
Our fake hero develops an entourage of his own: Elijah (RJ Cyler), Barabbas (Omar Sy), Varinia (Anna Diop), his mother Amina (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin), and Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa).
Clarence has half the number of disciples that Jesus has. Each of Clarence’s followers has a unique voice, forcing him to grow. What makes us doubt? What makes us believe? It is a new story and an old story. Ancient and modern.
This is an anachronistic tale of humor and magical realism. I enjoyed watching this story. Ideas are lights, bodies defy gravity, and love might change the color of your eyes. If you believe.
This is a tragedy.
The Romans are pale and garbed in red, like the blood of their regime of terror. Jesus also wears red, but he keeps his face hidden behind a red scarf. On him red is the blood of sacrifice.
Some of the characters stay the same, some evolve. The biggest villains (besides the Romans) are the people who walk by beggars, the people who might stone a woman to death, and the people who might enslave others. The villains in this story are not defined by culture or religion but by their lack of compassion.
If there is a message, it is this: it is OK to have doubt. It is OK to believe. Neither of those acts alone makes anyone a wholly good or bad person.
The soundtrack surrounds us with melody and lyrics that are slow and rhythmic, lively then somber. In addition to directing the film, Jeymes Samuel worked on the soundtrack with Jay-Z. I have been listening to the music on repeat.
Through cinematography and song, we see a story that is a compilation of biblical epics, Spaghetti Westerns, and Blaxploitation films.
This is sacrilege.
“The Book of Clarence” is a comedy and a drama. The levity may seem sacrilegious, but it is a tale of faith and doubt. People have a habit of hurting other people. And it has always been this way. They watched people die on a hill called Golgotha. We watch people being killed every day on the news. Some deaths we ignore. Others we fixate on. Ancient and modern. It is a miracle that anyone would want to die for us. Maybe our sins are so great, we have to laugh about it.
This is salvation.
As the story progresses, the comedy fades away. There are tears of friendship and love, a soliloquy from an unexpected ally, and a mother’s anguished shouts from the crowd. This is a passion play. But the savior is not Jesus, not this time. His name is Clarence. A regular guy. I found myself crying over him. Not for his divinity, but his humanity.
“The Book of Clarence” is holy and unexpected. This is a movie where your faith and your doubt will be treated with reverence. Exceptional cast and action. Beautiful visuals. Stunning accuracy about what pains and moves us. I was unexpectedly an emotional mess about this one. It will be tough on those who hold things sacred. It will be tough for those who enjoy sacrilege. Tough but worth it. Peace be with you. Grade B+
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