If The Book of Clarence – a biblical comedy-drama set in AD 33 Jerusalem – doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of film to get you rushing to the cinema, allow us to give you a short rundown of the names behind this project. Directed by Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) and with production from Jay-Z, an in no way exhaustive list of its stars includes Anna Diop, LaKeith Stanfield, David Oyelowo, Teyana Taylor, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alfre Woodward. Reconsidering splashing out on those movie tickets now? We thought so.
The hotly-anticipated and highly irreverent Biblical epic explores the idea of faith through the story of Clarence (Stanfield): a down-on-his-luck Hebrew man who attempts to capitalise on the growing celebrity and influence of the Messiah for his own personal gain. While clearly not an actual Bible story, the tale weaves in prominent Christian figures, including Mary Magdalene, Barrabas, the Twelve Apostles, St John the Baptist, Jedediah and, of course, Jesus. The result, according to Diop, is a rich and beautiful tapestry unlike anything she had ever seen before but, at the same time, vaguely familiar.
“One of the elements that make classic films classic is that [they] feel like something you’ve seen before but you haven’t and it’s completely original and new,” says Diop, who plays Varinia, Clarence’s love interest. “I had that feeling reading the script, I knew these characters. I knew this world but I’ve never seen people that look like me depicted in this world in that way.”
The Book of Clarence subverts the traditional Biblical epic but, with its narrative of false prophets, not in a Monty Python or Mel Brooks way. While it is undeniably a comedy, The Book of Clarence steers away from the slapstick in favour of a more poignant, layered narrative that allows for modern comparison and with fully-developed characters for the all-star cast to sink their teeth into.
“The story is about a young man who is at a point of crisis in his life. He wants a better life for himself and his mother, and wants to get the girl, but she refuses him because he’s not respectable at the time,” she explains. “It’s a coming-of-age story that happens to take place in the time and place of Jesus Christ.”
The film was shot on location over several months in Matera in Southern Italy, the third oldest known city in the world after Aleppo and Jericho, and a popular filming location, having provided backdrops for the likes of No Time To Die, Wonder Woman and The Passion of the Christ. Diop describes the city as “breathtaking” and says that filming on location helped foster a close-knit relationship with the cast and crew that wouldn’t have been possible in a studio.
“I don’t think we would have bonded as much as we did if we weren’t filming in a place like Matera because there was nothing else to do but to spend time with each other,” she says. “There aren’t places to go out, there aren’t a lot of restaurants, it’s a very quiet place and we were there for many months. We all got really close and I’ve made lifelong friends.”
One of these is undoubtedly leading man LaKeith Stanfield, with Diop describing it as a “dream come true” to share the screen with one of the “most gifted” and exciting actors of his generation. “Our styles of acting are quite similar, we are both quite grounded people," she explains. "So it was like dancing with someone who is very familiar with your cadence. It’s hard to articulate but it felt very familiar. He’s so freakin’ good that he just pulls you right in so you’re melting, it’s very fluid.”
Diop herself, of course, is no small talent and over the last two decades has built up a versatile filmography featuring everything from spy thrillers and psychological horrors to superhero franchises. Before The Book of Clarence, Diop led the 2022 psychological thriller, Nanny. Told through the tropes of a horror narrative, the movie is an emotional exploration of the traumas experienced by immigrants in pursuit of the American dream.
A draining experience that, for obvious reasons, put Diop in a dark headspace, she speaks of the importance of developing techniques to shake off dark roles and return to normality. “I have to come back to doing stuff that reminds me of myself. I love soaking in a bath, so doing that after a really tough day reminds me of myself and brings me back into a warm space,” she says. “I really love skincare so coming back home and taking off my makeup and taking care of my skin and looking at myself and being myself when I look back in the mirror really helps.
“With Nanny, I did all of those things, yet still on the very last day of filming I came home and I just broke down in tears and sobbed for a few minutes. I guess there was something inside me that I was holding throughout filming that needed to get out.”
But despite the challenges, Diop has no interest in being typecast into lighter roles. “I want to run the gamut of this industry throughout TV, film and also theatre," Diop says of her chameleonic credit list. "I’m an unsatisfiable human being. I’m an insatiable creative and I want to do what I haven’t done yet.”
Where we will see her next? Your guess is as good as ours.
The Book of Clarence is due for release in UK cinemas in Spring 2024.