BARABBAS (Richard Fleischer, 1961)

Engrossing, (by Raymond Poulton and Alberto Gallitti) brilliantly edited, Richard Fleischer’s Barabbas is nonetheless an outrage on two fronts. It is mostly mediocre, at times tacky. The (actual) solar eclipse is gorgeous, but little else evokes any Christian sense of mystery. Outrageous also is the fact that an earlier, purportedly excellent version (1953) of Pär Lagerkvist’s novel, from Sweden, written and directed by Alf Sjöberg, is widely unseen largely because of Fleischer’s more “spectacular” film, in English, from Italy.
     Anthony Quinn plays Barabbas, the thief whom Roman crowds vote to free on a holy day, choosing to send Jesus of Nazarene instead to his death by crucifixion. Guilt over his survival at the expense of someone others believe to be the Son of God launches Barabbas’s stumbling long odyssey in the direction of Christian identity and crucifixion. What a great story—one more exciting than the story about Jesus; but, despite two or three terrific episodes, this movie doesn’t amount to much. None of Fleischer’s films—unlike the animated ones by his father, Max—do.
     Quinn, so-so, mumbles grumpily. But Jack Palance, baring his upper teeth in a menacing smile, claims his most insane role: Torvald, a gladiator who so considers himself the king of the arena that he turns down three offers of freedom from his emperor. Giving the best performance, however, is Vittorio Gassman as Sahak, Barabbas’s fellow prisoner in the sulfur mines and a glowing example of early Christian faith and commitment. His dignified, endearing acting balances Quinn’s glumness and gloom. Surprisingly quick and good, as another devoted Christian, is Ernest Borgnine. Harry Andrews, though, may be too solemn as Peter. When he reports a joke made to him by Jesus one regrets that he seems incapable of any joke of his own.

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