It took a lot of guts for famed producer Dino de Laurentiis to make yet another Hollywood-styled, religious epic based on the Passion of Christ story, but he did with the very ironic, massively conflictful Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn as the lead character.
Barabbas is the violent thief who was spared by a people’s vote in Jesus’ place. Once freed, the basically sceptical, unreformed criminal tries to understand the truth of the “Master’s” story, but remains unconvinced despite an amazing eclipse of the sun during the Crucifixion scene, the ensuing Resurrection, the stoning of believer Rachel, and the murder of his Christian friend at the hands of a psycho-gladiator.
His existentially being condemned to live produces much irony, as in (SPOILERS follow) when he survives an earthquake after working 20 years in a sulphur mine or when he participates in the burning of Rome and then is chastised by the Christians he assumed started the fire. Indeed, the ending is ironic, thanks to the capable pen of screenplay-writer Christopher Fry who stayed as faithful to the spirit of the original Par Lagerkvist novel as possible and supported by Richard Fleischer’s nicely balanced, nuanced direction.
I certainly feel that the conclusion is not a successful slam-dunk conversion (as in the various other Hallmark-styled flicks) given many filmic and text elements suggesting otherwise. For this alone, the movie is a triumph of contrasts, ambiguities, and uncertainties about the main character and his process through an amazing tale of long-time survival. Barabbas’s inner conflicts are many, deep, and remain so right through the unexpected ending.
There is much to like about this film with some of the most powerful and realistic gladiator scenes ever filmed, its use of light and darkness symbolism, alternate perspectives on the Passion story and its ongoing relevance to people of all stripes. No other biblical movie has the same existential angst (successfully conveyed by Anthony Quinn in one of his greatest, most challenging roles), complexity, and intensity of protagonist feeling. Barabbas as movie and character both work well on their terms.
Scenes like the eclipse during the Crucifixion (using an actual eclipse of the sun), the vicious stoning of Rachel, the crazy mine escape, the violent gladiator training and games, the catacombs episode (mirroring Barabbas’ lostness), the burning of Rome, and the multiple crucifixions finale alone make this movie worth seeing in this excellent Columbia widescreen DVD. And Jack Palance in the best performance he ever gave as a vicious sadist is also worth the price of this disc.
Barabbas is highly recommended entertainment and mental fodder for Christians and non-Christians alike. Put this classic on your viewing list this Easter for sure.