LaKeith Stanfield in ‘The Book of Clarence’

Courtesy Legendary Entertainment/Moris Puccio

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‘The Book of Clarence’ Is a Raw, Funny Epistle About Faith

What begins as a Black ‘Life of Brian’ becomes a wonderful, confusing banquet that puts dull Hollywood box-tickers to shame

by
Liel Leibovitz
February 02, 2024
LaKeith Stanfield in 'The Book of Clarence'

Courtesy Legendary Entertainment/Moris Puccio

There are many, many reasons not to like The Book of Clarence, the new movie from musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel.

Despite taking place in Jerusalem in the year 33 CE and dealing exclusively with religion, no one in the film even once identifies as Jewish. Instead, the all-Black cast delivers a shambolic tale that, as one critic sagely put it, “plays like Ben-Hur by way of Friday.” Or, rather, part of the film does: What begins as a fun tale of Clarence, a minor hustler dealing lingonweed and pining for the ladies, while Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks groove on the soundtrack, soon veers hard into much murkier existential turf. Clarence the sinner finds Jesus—literally—but not, you see, the literal Jesus of the Gospels, because Clarence’s Jesus is a badass who can stop the stones aimed at Mary Magdalen midair, like Neo did with bullets in The Matrix. Oh, and there’s another Jesus, too, who is white and played by Benedict Cumberbatch and beloved by all because, as one passerby puts it not too subtly, “he’s so pure and white and so trustworthy.”

Does this sound like a preachy, muddled, incoherent, flagrant mess? Sure! But so, if we’re being honest about it, is the very idea of faith.

How do you make a movie about faith? If hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings, faith is more like a hairless cat that skulks around the heart, compelling but not cute, a creature that, by its very existence, begs the question “why.” Why do we believe there’s something when we can see nothing? And why engage seriously with a way of being in the world that advertises, at the very outset of things, that it can offer absolutely no concrete evidence to guide us on our way?

Traditionally, artists have tackled this question in one of two ways. Some, like George Stevens, opted for excessive, oppressive, performative sincerity. How else to tell The Greatest Story Ever Told but in a mammoth movie that, despite a run time of three hours and 19 minutes found no room for levity, wonder, or joy? “God is unlucky,” one writer quipped after sitting through that big blockbuster of 1965; “His only begotten son turns out to be a bore.”

There’s nothing boring about Ernst Toller, who is played by Ethan Hawke and is the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a master class in how to make another kind of faith film. Toller is a pastor plagued by doubt and guilt, and a tight and heartbreaking human drama unfurling in his pews helps make his very internal struggle visible, palpable, and raw. This is the subgenre of faith journey as therapy, where the dysfunctional relationship isn’t with a spouse but with God. It works, but it still feels idiosyncratic, because no matter how moving the pastor’s realizations are, they’re his own, not ours. Making a film about one person’s struggle with faith is a reasonable undertaking; but how do you make a movie about faith writ large? How do you capture the feeling itself on screen?

That’s the question Samuel tries to answer in The Book of Clarence. He fails—heroically, gloriously, gallantly—but his failure is more instructive than 10 taut biblical epics.

Why do we believe there’s something when we can see nothing? And why engage seriously with a way of being in the world that advertises, at the very outset of things, that it can offer absolutely no concrete evidence to guide us on our way?

When we first meet Clarence, played by the always exquisite LaKeith Stanfield, he is quick to offer his mantra: Knowledge is stronger than belief. He tells it to John the Baptist, who delivers an endearing and hilarious response, and to the Virgin Mary, who offers miraculous tales of her boy ripped straight from the Apocrypha. But Clarence isn’t having any of it. He owes Jedediah the Terrible a bunch of money, and Jedediah did not earn his moniker by turning the other cheek. He’s also in love with Jedediah’s sister, Varinia, another good reason to hatch a get-rich-quick scheme. And because his twin brother, Thomas, had upped and left to become a disciple of that Nazarene dude getting real well known, Clarence decides that there’s no business like the Messiah business. He pronounces himself the Redeemer, performs a few silly tricks in the marketplace, and, presto, he’s flush with fame and cash.

Are you getting strong Life of Brian vibes? Expecting hilarity to ensue as Clarence sends up our musty pieties in delightful one-liners that reek of weed and Nietzsche? Forget it, Jack, this is Jerusalem: With a thousand silver shekels in his rucksack, Clarence is rolling merrily along, on his way to pay off his debts and buy his mother a nice new home. But then he sees the slaves in the marketplace, and something clicks—Clarence the dealer, Clarence the doubter, Clarence the doomed rises to the occasion and, for the first time in his life, does the right thing.

There’s no point describing what happens next. Walking on water, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Last Supper all make an appearance, but none are instructive, or even terribly sensible, because the plot cheerfully refuses to cohere. One moment we’re at a night club, getting down with some dance moves punctuated by old-timey effects; the next, we’re staring at Clarence’s anguished face, a scene as bloody and as haunting as anything Mel Gibson inflicted on his Christ. There are great jokes and rousing speeches and glib bursts of hammy political grandstanding and tiny moments of human compassion and no warning whatsoever that the tone’s about to change. It’s like going to a restaurant and being offered sashimi, chicken tikka masala, and a McFlurry for dessert—you may be horrified, but are you really complaining?

Hallelujah to that! Because The Book of Clarence makes two essential points.

The first is that art doesn’t have to make a point. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be. Its job is to convey the feeling of one human being to another, which is just about the most difficult and miraculous undertaking on this planet. There’s more truth and beauty in one “she loves you, yeah yeah yeah” than there is in the sunken and turgid sophistry of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters. And there’s never any doubt as to what Clarence is feeling, because Clarence is a guy, not an ideological bot weaponized to deliver a drab and deadly payload of virtue signaling.

It’s hard to remember this after more than a decade of cinematic misery, but movies don’t have to be the celluloid equivalent of an anxious undergrad’s term paper written entirely to tickle some dim teacher’s biases. They don’t have to make stump speeches or pretend to be stunning and brave by doing little else but modulating the melanin level on screen. They simply have to make us feel something. The Book of Clarence does, in spades, and the feeling it focuses on is the notoriously finicky one of faith.

Which brings us to the second, and major, reason for the strange, broken-down greatness of The Book of Clarence. Like his accidental hero, Samuel, too, wants to know what faith is, and like Clarence, he is also too honest to pull off a few tricks and call himself a savior. Sometimes, he knows, faith is romantic, even erotic, as we acknowledge every Friday afternoon by welcoming Shabbat with "Lecha Dodi,” a poem imagining God as a beloved bridegroom and all of us as his eagerly awaiting bride. Sometimes faith is frustrating, a dull sensation we feel on those many cold mornings when we pray with the best of intentions but feel very far from our Creator. Sometimes, faith is just doubt in an overcoat—doubt, as G.K. Chesterton wisely observed, being a sensation that’s of no use to anyone but those most eager to believe. Sometimes faith is bluster, which you know if you’ve gone to a progressive house of worship and were treated to talk of transgenderism or climate change rather than the word of God. Faith can happen in grand, sweeping moments of conversion and elation, in shul or on the road to Damascus. But it’s just as present in that small smile you exchange with your child around the Shabbat dinner table, with the challah beckoning and the candles burning bright and nothing bigger happening than a moment of family bliss.

These sensations have little in common. A scientist would have a hard time fitting them together into some orderly taxonomy. But it’s precisely this fluidity, this thin, wild mercury sensation that makes faith sustaining, intoxicating, essential. It’s this insight that moved Walt Whitman, the closest thing America has had to a prophet, to cheerfully dismiss his inherent contradictions. “I am large,” he ruled, “I contain multitudes.”

We all do, but we need someone to free us—from too much doubt or too much dogma, from deadened attachments and irrational fears, from everything that makes us not see the mysteries of creation that unfurl each day all around us. Knowledge, Clarence reassures us as his book comes to an end, is stronger than belief. But this time, he’s speaking as a man who cried and sneered and blasphemed and prayed his way into belief and now stands firmly on a much higher peak, looking down on creation with certainty and humility and joy. In short, he’s speaking as a man of faith. And we’re right there with him, bewildered and moved, confounded and amused, clueless but ready to change.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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