After the critical and box office success of Ben-Hur (1959), it's no surprise that producer Dino De Laurentiis applies the same formula to his 1962 Biblical epic, Barabbas. Focusing on Jesus generally destines these genre films towards mediocrity, so the better epics use peripheral characters as protagonists to show Christ's impact during His lifetime and immediately after. Like Judah Ben-Hur, the central character here observes Christ from a distance, is sent away for slave labor and expected to suffer a quick death, miraculously returns to Rome, and seeks redemption. Even a verbal reference to lepers makes an appearance, bringing automatic flashbacks to Ben-Hur. Lacking the Circus Maximus spectacle of its famous predecessor, Barabbas compensates with nuanced acting from Anthony Quinn in the title role and some memorable scenes, making this often overlooked epic a worthy rental.
I don't remember how many times I've seen Barabbas over the years—mostly during collegiate years in 1967. My dormitory would run free weekend movies each week, and for some reason this film screened at least once every month. I had sworn off watching the film for many years and forgotten much of it, but certain scenes remained vivid: the stoning of Rachel, the sulfur mine collapse, the gladiator training, Jack Palance's evil laugh, and the burning of Rome. Add to that the heavy burden than Quinn carries with him after his release—the idea that the life of a "rebel, thief, and murderer" be set free in lieu of Christ—and the film deals with a compelling theme.
Over and over Barabbas asks, "why doesn't God make himself clear?" It's the same question many of us would ponder, had we lived during those days in Jerusalem. It's one thing to jump onto the religious bandwagon 2,000 years later after churches and its believers have built societies and after the faith has been firmly established. Yet even today, most thinking individuals continual to struggle between good and evil, and search for meaning in life. Barabbas stands for such an Everyman, who wants to believe but seeks evidence and direction.
Based on Nobel Prize winning Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist's novel, director Richard Fleischer's film begins in Pontius Pilate's court with the criminal Barabbas being pardoned instead of Christ. Symbolically, Barabbas has great difficulty seeing Christ through a near blinding light—a motif that reappears during the historically based eclipse during the crucifixion and in the sulfur mines. The film's core is built around the nature of faith and belief, emphasized by contrasting light and darkness. Instead of seeing a clear path for his "salvation" Barabbas must meander the physical maze of his existence, continually haunted by the prophet that died in his stead.
Previously a womanizer, Barabbas changes after the stoning death of his girlfriend Rachel, who had become a devout Christian, but he never finds satisfaction. He finds no passion in his life—no real meaning in his existence, though he does become friends with Sahak (Vittorio Gassman), a Christian that inadvertently becomes linked to him through the sulfur mines and continues as Barabbas “converts” to Christianity and becomes a gladiator.
For Barabbas, and for any skeptic, no easy path to redemption exists—only additional questions and mysteries. Detested by some that resent his existence in preference to Christ. Despite picking up on Christianity's essential message "to love one another," he never truly finds love himself. Quinn superbly plays the flawed Barabbas as a melancholy existentialist, keeping his emotions close to his vest but far more real than what Heston delivers in his wooden Oscar-winning Ben-Hur role.
Quinn's work plays better for acting aficionados than for the masses, but destiny sentences Barabbas to endure in the shadow of its more honored cousin. Shackled with a name that remains infamous to Christians, lacking a grand scale chariot race, and plodding through an uneven script without an uplifting hopeful ending message, Barabbas remains an overlooked Biblical epic more likely to show on late night re-runs than show in prime time during Easter week.