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Film review: The Book of Clarence (cinema); The Greatest Story Ever Told (DVD/Blu-Ray)

19 April 2024

Stephen Brown on The Book of Clarence and a classic re-released

LaKeith Stanfield as Clarence in The Book of Clarence

LaKeith Stanfield as Clarence in The Book of Clarence

MOVIES involving Jesus tend to fall into two categories. There are those that present him directly, but often also with some emphasis on another character, usually Judas Iscariot, e.g. The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there are the ones in which Jesus is hardly seen at all, but makes his presence powerfully felt, like The Robe. In The Book of Clarence (Cert. 15), Nicholas Pinnock’s Jesus gets 15th billing in the cast list. That is because most of the action surrounds Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), who lives by his wits on the streets of Jerusalem, AD c.33, and is also good to his mother — unlike his twin, Thomas, aka Didymus (Stanfield).

In his brother’s eyes, Thomas is so heavenly-minded he’s no earthly good, following, as he does, “that false prophet”. Thus does Jeymes Samuel’s film present two faces of our humanity. In Thomas, we see faithfulness but neglect of family. In Clarence, it’s materialism for the sake of his relatives. This atheistic, drug-dealing, pot-smoking gambler and frequenter of opium dens abounding in loose women naively bets against Mary Magdalene’s chariot (recalling 1927’s The King of Kings) in a Ben-Hur race. As a result, he is in debt to a mobster.

In desperation, Clarence contrives to get baptised, in the hope that this will protect him. David Oyelowo as John the Baptist won’t have any of this pious posturing, nearly drowning Clarence. So far, so funny. Clarence’s attempts to become the 13th Apostle are a strategy to rake in the shekels. He resorts to fake miracles before coming to his senses.

The plot is similar to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But jokes often fall flat, and the narrative on offer here cannot hold a candle to Python’s one of mistaken identity and human gullibility. Rob Hardy’s cinematography sets up a world both ancient and modern. The presence of an overwhelmingly black cast challenges centuries-long images of pale Galileans. Even so, this doesn’t entirely redeem the picture, which cannot make up its mind whether it is about racism and an oppressed people — Pontius Pilate is played by a white actor, James McAvoy — or self-actualisation through faith.

Neither Thomas, nor Barabas (sic), nor Mary Magdalene overlaps much with anything that the Evangelists told us about them. Perhaps it is one of the director’s ploys to distance Clarence from the Messiah. Like Brian, he’s a very naughty boy, at least for a while. But, if Clarence is meant to parallel Jesus, not be like him, why mimic iconography such Leonardo’s Last Supper? In effect, The Book of Clarence is a cinematic equivalent of one of those Dead Sea Scrolls: like the Gospel of Thomas with gags and music.


A THREE-DISC edition of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. The director George Stevens’s films ranged from Laurel and Hardy comedies to The Diary of Anne Frank.

Max von Sydow as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told

This biblical epic plays somewhat like his Western classic, Shane. Jesus recruits his Magnificent Twelve in what is Utah’s Glen Canyon. Heading a largely Caucasian cast, Max von Sydow gives Jesus the gravitas of his Ingmar Bergman roles. While there are miracles — spectacularly, the raising of Lazarus — it is meditative teaching that takes priority. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Stevens, who filmed the liberation of Dachau, provides a hauntingly reverent treatment of the Fourth Gospel, placing the evil that humans do to one another within the ultimate context of divine love.

There is a bonus Blu-ray disc with trailer, documentaries, and an alternative “Judas Dies” scene, plus a 24-page booklet.

Distributed by Capelight Pictures and Altitude.

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