At the Movies: Clarenfreud | Chaz's Journal – Roger Ebert

Winter finally arrived in Chicago recently, and instead of watching the meteorologists tell us how many inches of thunder snow we would get, I decided to partake in one of my favorite activities, going to the movies. I am fortunate to see lots of films in advance because of my line of work. However, from time to time, like the average movie-goer, I  delight in looking at the listings to choose a movie. Should I go see “Origin,” once again, the brilliant new film by Ava DuVernay (read Robert Daniels’ four-star review here), or should I wait until the newspaper is delivered to see what else is playing? It was too early in the morning for my newspaper (yes, I still subscribe to newspapers and love reading them while turning the pages), so I went online to see the listings at my local theater.
Two movies caught my eye and they were listed as being shown back-to-back: “The Book of Clarence,” at 10am, and “Freud’s Last Session” at Noon. What luck! That’s the best, when you can see one movie, leave for a bathroom break, and then go right into the next one. I hadn’t heard much about these two films, so I didn’t tag them with nicknames like Barbenheimer, mimicking the blockbuster showing of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” but that didn’t stop me from wondering if I did, whether the name would be Clarence/Freud or Clarenfreud. I decided on Clarenfreud.
However, when I went to buy the tickets, this notice came up: “Theater closed due to snowstorm.” I panicked. My carefully planned day was falling apart and I hadn’t even left the bed. I called the theater, but it was too early, and no one answered. There was a voicemail. I felt a bit of hope when their announcement didn’t repeat the notice about the theater closing. I decided to do my morning meditations and routine and call closer to the time of the start of the film. 
Success! After my morning routine, I called again and got a real human being! He told me the notice was wrong, the theater would be open that day. I rejoiced. However, because the online notice was giving them some problem, I had to buy the tickets when I got to the theater. I dressed and braved the weather. Parking was inside of a heated garage, so no problem there. In fact, driving along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago was beautiful. Slivers of light were peeping through the snow clouds, painting the landscape a palette of artist greys. I love Chicago’s skyline, and even appreciate it in the winter.  
When I got to the theater, I was about the third person in line. That almost never happens, usually the line is a lot longer. I bought both tickets at once. Theaters are smarter now about not telegraphing the names and the starting times of the films on the individual marquees above the door. In order to get that information, you have to buy a ticket. And that is only fair. It is a business, after all. No more buying one ticket and then sneaking into a second movie afterwards without buying a second ticket.
Someone asked me whether having a website that reviews movies interferes with my enjoyment of them. No, for instance, even knowing that our film critic hadn’t given “The Book of Clarence” a very high rating, I knew I wanted to see it for several reasons. First, Lakeith Stanfield is the leading man. I always enjoy his performances, but I wanted to see if he could carry the whole film. (Yes, he can.) Also, when I was in Quarzazat, a city near Morocco, I fantasized about making a biblical-style epic with a primarily Black cast, a la “Hamilton.” And judging from the trailer, that is what this would be. Plus the cast was filled with names I liked in other movies or series like Alfre Woodard, Omar Sy, David Oyelowo, Anna Diop and even new actors like Teyana Taylor, who I became aware of from her exceptional performance in the indie film “A Thousand and One.” There are many reasons to see a film, even if your expectations aren’t very high.
I wanted to see “Freud’s Last Session” because it starred Anthony Hopkins, one of cinema’s finest actors who usually finds some interesting hook with which to imbue his characters. So Clarenfreud, it was. Before telling you what each movie was about, I won’t hold you in suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed both films! And interestingly enough, the underlying theme of both films happened to be a discussion about whether there is a God. That was just a bit of serendipity or synchronicity, and it was completely unexpected. 
“The Book of Clarence” marks the sophomore feature of writer/director Jeymes Samuel, who made his feature debut with 2021’s all-star western, “The Harder They Fall.” The role of Clarence is played by Lakeith Stanfield, who attended Ebertfest in 2014 with Brie Larson for a screening of their breakout film, “Short Term 12.” Since then, he’s had memorable roles in such acclaimed pictures as “Selma,” “Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

In Samuel’s new film, Stanfield plays Clarence, a man in Biblical times who doesn’t believe in Jesus as a divine being. Clarence is a two-bit petty crook who thinks that Jesus is a fraud who somehow gets people to give him money by performing magic dressed up as miracles. When Clarence and his side-kick, Elijah (RJ Cyler) become indebted to a money lender, Clarence concocts a scheme to get money by claiming to be a Black Messiah himself. 
Even as Clarence is performing his trickery we see that he isn’t all bad, for instance, he is good to his mother Amina (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). He stayed behind to take care of her when his supposedly religious twin brother, Thomas, did not. (Stanfield plays both roles.) He is also in love with the money lender’s sister, Varinia (Anna Diop). This movie starts off as a parody and you think it is going to be laughs all the way through, but as Clarence evolves in his convictions and beliefs, so does the film. 
I have seen criticisms of the uneven tone of the film, but that didn’t bother me. I rather enjoyed the metamorphosis. Is there a God? Can Jesus walk on water? Can a person really exist who only wants good for other people? Can we really love another person unconditionally? Can a two-bit petty crook put aside thoughts of what’s in it for him for thoughts of the greater good? Can a person really change? I would like to talk to the director about how and when he decided that the film would grapple with some of these issues, but whether you think the film shows this successfully or not, Stanfield rises to the occasion. And watching him as he grows in his moral convictions is a beautiful sight to see. 
“Freud’s Last Session” is the third feature by writer/director Matt Brown, and like his sophomore effort, the 2015 biopic “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” it takes the form of a provocative two-hander between real-life individuals. Based on the play by Mark St. Germain, the film stars two-time Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Father“) as Sigmund Freud, who invites “Chronicles of Narnia” author C.S. Lewis (played by Emmy nominee Matthew Goode) to have a spirited debate with him about the existence of God.
The meeting of Freud and Lewis in the film takes place in September of 1939,  amidst the backdrop of the beginning of World War II. Freud spent his life in Vienna, Austria, where he is credited with being the founding father of psychoanalysis. He fled Austria in 1938 with his wife Martha, and his daughter Anna, for the United Kingdom after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. By that time Freud was suffering from an inoperable mouth cancer stemming from his cigar addiction. He died September 23, 1939.
The director Matthew Brown’s father was a psychiatrist who often spoke with him about Freud. (See Nell Minow’s fascinating interview of Brown.) In real life, we know only that Freud met with a don or university teacher from Oxford or Cambridge at some point close to the time of his death, but we don’t know if it was indeed C.S. Lewis. In the film, Freud is intrigued by Lewis’ conversion from an agnostic/atheist to a man of faith, and being close to death himself, he wants to explore whether he has missed a piece of evidence that could help his atheism. He has read Lewis’ writings and they inquire into each other’s beliefs about the existence of a Supreme Being. This two-hander reminds me of the seminal conversationalist movie “My Dinner With Andre,” where we were mesmerized by Wallace Shawn’s discussion with Andre Gregory. Roger called it enchanting. And there is indeed a seductive allure listening in on the conversation of two smart people who have let their guards down. 
As I sat in “Freud,” watching the ping-ponging conversation between Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode as Freud and Lewis, I was struck by how such a profound topic, the existence of God, could be so provocatively explored in such diverse ways with this unconventional yet surprisingly fitting double bill. On the subject of science versus God Brown in his interview with Minow says: “There’s a quote from Einstein that says science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” I don’t know what I think about the topic, but I highly recommend  that moviegoers seek out these two movies (“The Book of Clarence” and “Freud’s Last Session”) either in theaters or as they are made available for your home viewing. They are both entertaining.
Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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