Barabbas (1961), or How I Spent My Passover Vacation

2 01 2009
Give us Barabbas! Barabbas! Or dont. Whatever.

Give us Barabbas! Barabbas! Or don't. Whatever.

Today is an interesting review, as it is a conflict of interests for yours truly. Anybody who knows me understands my feeling on religion, and anybody who doesn’t, let me spell it out for you; my position rhymes with schmatheism, and it means that I am a godless heathen. Now our subject today is the Christian parable film Barabbas, and although it is heavy on the Christ, it is my job to be objective. I will not topple the argument for faith in this review, but if you feel the need to leave a comment I am all for healthy, civilized discussion.

So, I’m sure a lot of people are wondering, “Who the fuck is Barabbas, and how is he related to Jesus?” Well, kids, about 2000 years ago, according to about five of the Apostles, Pontius Pilate presided over the Passover festival in Jerusalem. Now, it was customary for the governor of Judaea to release one prisoner during the feast by popular demand. And that year, the two lucky contestants were Barabbas, a bandit and a rioter, and Jesus Christ, the alleged Son of God and the King of the Jewish peoples. And, obviously, the J-man was not chosen by the people and Barabbas went free (It is of note that this is the parable that many Christians point to when that old chestnut “The Jews killed Jesus!” is bandied about) . That is all the Bible has on this guy. Seriously. And until 1950, he was just a really peripheral character that I’m sure nobody agonized at night wondering what happened to after the crucifixion.  But 1950 was the date Par Lagerkvist wrote the book Barabbas, a character study that fleshed out the man quite a bit and expounded his life and motivations. It was well received, winning a Nobel Prize for literature. And ten years later, it was adapted for the screen, and here we are today.

Anthony Quinn is Barabbas, a man haunted by his own freedom. He is a brigand liberated by the people, and at the beginning we see him hardened from prison, world-weary and dubious of Jesus’ divinity. He comes home to acclaim from his friends, lauding his luck over that of Jesus’ and having a good post-prison laugh with him. But his main squeeze, Rachel, sees things differently. She has chosen to devote herself to the prophet, and is cold to him, feeling that perhaps he should have gone to Golgotha instead. This unsettling fact is compounded for Barabbas when Jesus is crucified. The sky goes as black as pitch and might as well shake its head disapprovingly at Barabbas. Rachel is crushed, but knows that he will rise again in three days. He scoffs at the notion, and unwittingly distances himself further from his paramour. But indeed the body is not in the cave by the third day, and Rachel rejoices, albeit briefly. Because of her heretical teachings, the same men who had Jesus crucified stone the poor girl to death. This sets Barabbas off on a melancholy, confused journey to discovering his own faith.

The acting on display for me is a mixed bag. While Anthony Quinn shines as the tortured titular character, I felt the rest of the cast phoned it in. Ernest Borgnine’s performance as Lucius was very placid, and I felt that perhaps he could have worked a bit harder than he did. The same goes for Vittorio Gassman as Sahek. Wake up, people! I know this is an Old Hollywood production, but this isn’t a waxworks; it’s a motion picture. Motion! One person who stood out though is the amazing Jack Palance as Torvald. You remember Jack Palance as Duke Washburn in City Slickers 2 or as Jack Napier’s boss in Tim Burton’s Batman? Forget about that guy!!! He is a phony, a pretender to the throne. This Jack Palance literally steals every scene he is in. He is awesome! Keep an eye out for him.

The set design is fantastic. ‘Nuff said. Both the pomp and the filth of the Roman Emprie show their faces during the film’s many juxtapositions between the glittering city and it dark underbelly. The score by Mario Nascimbene is another example of Old Hollywood, but in a more positive sense. Sweeping orchestral arrangements, the majesty of a hundred instruments playing as one. Jesus’ crucifixion is a definite highlight. The direction is cookie-cutter, average. You wouldn’t notice anything extraordinary about camera placement, blocking, or anything like that. Like many films of the era, it is quite static and relies heavily on the talent to provide most of the artistic vision, and when not all of the actors are running on all their cylinders, it hinders the movie further. Fun fact, though: director Richard Fleischer is the son of Max Fleischer, creator of classic rubber-hose cartoons like Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. The more you know, huh?

Warning: the movie is heavy on allegory (duh). If you are not very devout, or not a Christian, this storyline might turn you off. It is the story of early Christians, and the founding and discovery of their faith, told through the eyes of a man who did not find his love of God until near the end of his life. For someone like me, while I can appreciate the artistic value of the performances, the story itself was very off-putting.

So what do I think? Well I’m glad you asked. Though the movie suffers from a lack of interest at times on either side of the camera lens, the score and the sheer talent save the movie from being bland. I give it 6 Passover festivals out of 10. I would also almost give it less, however, if it weren’t for a bad-ass performance by the one, the only Jack Palance!!!

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow is my first PSA, where we will be discussing a lost gem from a couple years back called the Fountain. See you then!