Adventure Comedy

Review: ‘The Book of Clarence’ is Crowd-Pleasing Proof Why You Should Never Judge a Book by Its Cover

January 5, 2024Ben MK

Known as the greatest story ever told, the Bible has served as the rock-solid foundation for many a big screen epic over the years. From such revered classics as The Ten Commandments to animated adventures like The Prince of Egypt and critically acclaimed dramas like The Passion of the Christ, filmmakers have been looking to the good book for cinematic inspiration for as long as movie cameras have existed. But what if there was more to the story of Jesus than what has been written in Scripture — what if there was a story within the story that could change people's perceptions forever?

The year is 33 A.D., and in the city of Lower Jerusalem, down-on-his-luck Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is a man of little faith who would do anything to win the affections of the beautiful Varinia (Anna Diop). But when Clarence's attempt to impress Varinia by winning a chariot race against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) ends with him and his loyal friend, Elijah (RJ Cyler), crashing their horse-drawn chariot, it puts the pair in a precarious position with Varinia's older brother, Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), a dangerous criminal to whom Clarence finds himself woefully indebted. Given 30 days to repay the ruthless Jedediah the money he owes him, Clarence must figure out a way to scrounge up the coins not only to save his own hide, but to put food on the table for himself and his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). So, naturally, he turns to the 12 Apostles, whose ties to the Messiah called Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) appears to have won them much favor with the citizens of Jerusalem, something Clarence believes will allow him to carry out his ingenious scheme to conjure up some quick cash.

Determined to join Jesus' elite crew and become the 13th Apostle, Clarence reluctantly agrees to a challenge set forth to him by Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward), in which he must pay a visit to a local slave owner (Babs Olusanmokun) and convince him to free all of his gladiators. Little does Clarence realize, however, that by doing so, he'll inadvertently find himself embracing a much more lucrative — and inevitably controversial — destiny, as he sets out to convince his fellow non-believers that he's none other than the new Messiah instead. With some help from Elijah and a former gladiator by the name of Barrabas the Immortal (Omar Sy), Clarence surprises even himself with his own success. But when his carefully constructed, so-called miracles catch the attention of the Romans, especially the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), it lands Clarence an unenviable spot on Rome's most-wanted list, putting him in immediate danger of being imprisoned, tortured and crucified.

Written and directed by Jeymes Samuel, what follows straddles the line between traditional faith-based filmmaking and righteous comedic spoof, as Clarence and his friends occasionally — and hilariously — cross paths with other well known biblical figures like John the Baptist (David Oleyowo) and Mary, mother of Jesus, herself (Alfre Woodard), while never missing an opportunity to challenge audiences' preconceptions about what they think they know about the Bible. Ultimately, though, it's the impressively stacked cast and Stanfield's committed portrayal of the film's central protagonist that help make The Book of Clarence as relatable and as watchable as it is — qualities that go a long way in keeping the result from feeling either too preachy or too silly.

Throw in a laugh-out-loud cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch that's so outrageously funny it almost overshadows the rest of the movie, and you have the makings of a crowd-pleasing fable that's bound to become a new cult classic among both Christian and secular audiences alike. As entertaining as it is, however, the real question is whether moviegoers will show up for The Book of Clarence, or whether the stigma associated with the film's religious subject matter will cause potential viewers to unfairly judge this book by its cover.

The Book of Clarence releases January 12th, 2024 from Sony Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for strong violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material, and smoking. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 16 min.