Cast of ‘The Book of Clarence’ (Legendary Entertainment / MORIS PUCCIO)

In ‘The Book of Clarence,’ a rich tapestry of profound concepts intertwines within a Biblical epic, augmented by dynamic action sequences and stunning visual effects—meticulously crafted to provoke deep contemplation. At its helm is Jeymes Samuel, the visionary director acclaimed for ‘The Harder They Fall.’ His daring reimagining of a parallel messiah narrative alongside Jesus’s life and fate emits an intriguingly irreverent tone.

With a primary cast composed of African American actors, the movie’s inaugural sequence—an adrenaline-charged chariot race careening along Jerusalem’s rugged cliffside paths, reminiscent of the spectacle in “Ben-Hur”—instantly sets the tone for its brisk tempo and dense narrative, brimming with audacious themes.

Set in 33 AD, Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) helm the chariots. Clarence, an underachiever compared to his morally ambiguous twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield), who is an Apostle, loses the race to Mary Magdalene and a significant bet to Jedediah (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a ruthless local gang leader. Coincidentally, Jedediah’s sister Varinia (Anna Diop) is Clarence’s love interest. Desperate for money, he decides to capitalize on the trend of being a holy figure akin to Jesus, whom everyone is discussing. Clarence ponders, “How hard could it be to become the ‘new Messiah’?”

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With a subtle nod and a conspiratorial wink, Clarence gathers his faithful companions—Elijah (R.J. Cyler), Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin), and Barabbas (Omar Sy)—who wholeheartedly join his burgeoning movement. However, the outspoken skeptic, John the Baptist (David Oyelowo), maintains his reservations. Clarence’s quasi-divine deeds swiftly capture the community’s attention and financial support. However, his rising fame draws the unwanted scrutiny of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) and the formidable Roman army, intent on suppressing any hint of miraculous figures, whether authentic or counterfeit.

Stanfield injects wit into Clarence’s persona, radiating a captivating charm that magnifies the potentially provocative concepts. Samuel’s audacious perspectives on religion, notably Christianity, permeate the meticulously crafted world, evident in intriguing and humorous visual elements—a case in point being the hookah café, where patrons, under exotic influences, appear to defy gravity.

Amid persecution, Clarence undergoes a profound metamorphosis, embodying traits akin to those of Christ. The film astutely leverages a non-white lead to encapsulate the essence of Jesus’ consciousness, infusing an ironic layer into the narrative that resonates with the prevalent theme of suffering across various religious doctrines.

Special recognition is warranted for production designer Peter Walpole and DP Rob Hardy for their invaluable contributions. Samuel emerges as an eccentric yet audacious filmmaker, firmly establishing himself as an emerging cinematic force to be reckoned with.

“The Book of Clarence” opens Jan. 12.