British musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel wanted to make a Biblical epic like “Ben-Hur” by adding “Spartacus” adjacent to the Bible in his own way. The result is a satirical/serious/surprising/soft mix called “The Book of Clarence,” starring LaKeith Stanfield as a drug smuggler in Jerusalem in 33 AD.
The trailer looks like an action comedy, and it’s not actually thought to contain both action (street racing, gladiator bone crunching) and comedy. Does it work? I would say no, sort of, and eventually almost. Extreme tonal shifts range from full-on crucifixion violence to visual gags like the lightbulb that appears over Clarence’s head as he is struck by his latest inspiration.
Left penniless and threatened with death by the local loan shark, Clarence tries to eke out a meager life as a “godless herbalist” with his friend Elijah (RJ Cyler). He cares for his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who has been more or less abandoned by Clarence’s identical twin brother, Thomas (also played by Stanfield, though without much differentiation).
Thomas has big things on his agenda: He’s one of Jesus’ 12 apostles in the Bible who had a date with destiny. Clarence offers to join the circle and eventually gets the idea of becoming a copycat Chosen One himself, performing fake miracles and recruiting minions for prestige and profit.
It’s a mature satirical premise, but “The Book of Clarence” wants more. Filming in Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson filmed (and stabbed and flogged) “The Passion of the Christ,” Samuel uses his disposable verbal jokes and disposable verbal jokes for a disarmingly acted narrative for a spiritual story that goes down a path no one takes for granted. It feeds its anachronisms. to become someone.
Anna Diop, who excelled in the supernatural thriller “Nanny,” plays Lavinia, the local gangster’s sister; Her fleeting but tangible connection with Clarence is the film’s central element. When Clarence’s popularity attracts the attention of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), the film’s intentions become tangled in some frustrating ways. Is the film best served by Gibson-esque gore in the climactic scenes? Is it useful to follow the nail-biting and pain-filled screams of those dying on the cross with witty jokes?
The cast includes Omar Sy as Barabbas, the noble, unkillable gladiator slave freed by Clarence’s first conspicuous valor; David Oyelowo as a grumpy man who holds John the Baptist underwater; and, in a comic highlight, the wonderful Alfre Woodard as the Virgin Mary, who discusses the issue of the virgin birth with a bemused Clarence. Teyana Taylor appears with her excellent works “One Thousand and One” not enough to be a fierce Mary Magdalene.
As for Stanfield, he’s a watchful, uniquely charismatic actor in almost any context, but this context is particularly challenging. His resolutely stark line readings have a way of dampening the film’s energy. On the other hand, would a more classically trained performer of “Biblical epic technique” have made “The Book of Clarence” more convincing, or simply more damaging? Who will say? I’m everywhere in a movie that’s everywhere.
Samuel’s first feature film, 2021 Western “The Harder They Fall” He was more successful everywhere. This, too, benefited from Samuel’s magnificent music. Samuel, whose musical stage name is The Bullitts, consistently rescues his latest film with a dozen or two songs in a half-dozen complementary styles; here’s a song featuring Jay-Z, elsewhere he leans into an Old Hollywood orchestral sweep or a harp solo. . The more this filmmaker learns about matching musical taste and invention with cinematic tonal range and control worthy of those sounds, the harder it will be to buy anything he does next.
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“The Book of Clarence” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for severe violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material, and smoking)
Running time: 2:05
How to watch: Premieres in theaters January 11
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.