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Audacious Bible-era story ‘The Book of Clarence’ is maybe too audacious

Movie Review: Audacious Bible-era story 'The Book of Clarence' is maybe too audacious

This image released by Sony Pictures shows a scene from “The Book of Clarence.” (Legendary Entertainment/Sony via AP)

Somewhere between the sacred and profane, comedy, drama and satire comes “The Book of Clarence,” a retelling of The Greatest Story Ever Told that arrives in theaters appropriately between Christmas and Easter.

It’s a remarkably idiosyncratic approach by rising auteur Jeymes Samuel, who for this Biblical-era tale is director, producer, writer and composer for only his second feature. You have to kind of hand it to him: Who else would have the audacity to tackle Jesus in your second outing?

“The Book of Clarence ” — with a stunning cast that includes LaKeith Stanfield, James McAvoy, Anna Diop, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard and David Oyelowo — careens through tones and sentiment, silly in one and then horrific in another. Samuel says he wants viewers to have a “wicked good time” but really it’s a bit of a muddled, unholy mess.

It is 33 AD in Jerusalem and Stanfield plays Clarence, a street hustler in robes who likes getting high — in one cool, surreal scene he floats into the air like a balloon — and dreams up schemes to get rich quick. He’s got the hots for a local beauty but owes a ton of coins to that beauty’s loansharking brother.

Clarence is called the “village’s mischief maker” and even his mother thinks he needs to get his act together. “I’m not a nobody,” he tells his twin brother, Thomas (also Stanfield, naturally). “A man who lacks honor is a nobody,” his brother replies. We know things are going to end painfully for Clarence because one of the first images in the movie is of him on a cross.

Clarence doesn’t believe in God and certainly doesn’t believe that the local guy named Jesus is capable of miracles. It’s a scam to him. He tries to become a 13th apostle to pay off his debts. When that fails he decides to pretend to be a messiah, too, and get paid for so-called tricks.

Samuel, whose previous movie was the all-Black Western “The Harder They Fall,” has some creative ideas, like using a chariot race to honor both “Ben Hur” and “Fast & Furious,” as well as wonderfully capturing the Last Supper like a painting come alive. He apes biblical epics in his title fonts and the opening and closing of the camera’s iris. He mixes stilted language — “I must make haste” — with modern turns (“I’ve got the cobblestones on lock.”) This is the first Biblical epic to uses the term “dumbass.”

But Samuel never stays with any idea for long and “The Book of Clarence” lacks cohesion, as well as consistency, even if the acting is superb, especially from a soulful Stanfield. Is Samuel honoring sword-and-sandal epics? Updating them? Mocking them? Looking at the Jesus story through a Black lens is immensely rewarding but the pay-off is poor.

There are plenty of messiahs here — like Spider-Mans in the multiverse — but it is not clear what the filmmaker wants to say with them. A critique of celebrity? A message about entertainment? That faith comes even to those who have none? That we kill all our saviors? It’s not even clear if this is a pro- or anti-religious movie.

Samuel comments powerfully on us today when white Roman police stop-and-frisk Black Jerusalem residents, but then wastes such a great potential vein to mine with a swanky dance party and cool choreographed moves. He makes us shudder as nails are pounded into Clarence’s flesh, yet also includes humor at the crucifixion — from the actual guys doing the dying. He has a scene with brutal rock throwing and yet also a recurring goofy bit about light bulbs appearing over Clarence’s head.

It’s a mind-melting piece of filmmaking, having elements of both Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and “The Ten Commandments.” (Fun fact, the Italian city of Matera stands in for Jerusalem here and was also where “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed.) Add to that an exciting soundtrack of more than a dozen songs by Samuel (even one with Jay-Z, also a producer on the movie) and “The Book of Clarence” is worth a look simply for its sheer daring. But we wouldn’t go so far as to say its creator walks on water.

Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is trying to find a better life for himself and his family, make himself worthy to the woman he loves, and prove that he’s not a nobody. Captivated by the power and glory of the rising Messiah and His apostles, he risks everything to carve his own path to a divine life, a journey through which he finds redemption and faith, power and knowledge. The Book of Clarence Official Soundtrack features new music by Jeymes Samuel, JAY-Z, Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi and more.

“The Book of Clarence,” a Columbia Pictures/Legendary Entertainment release that hits theaters Jan. 12, is rated PG-13 for “strong violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material and smoking.” Running time: 136 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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Credit belongs to : www.thestar.com

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