Blu-ray review: “Barabbas” (1961)

“Barabbas” (1961)

Biblical Drama

Running Time: 137 minutes

Written by: Nigel Balchin, Diego Fabbri, Christopher Fry and Salvatore Quasimodo based on Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist

Directed by: Richard Fleischer

Featuring:  Anthony Quinn, Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Andrews, Ernest Borgnine, Vittorio Gassman and Jack Palance

Pontius Pilate: “It seemed to me at the time, Barabbas, when you were given your liberty before, it wasn’t a fortunate exchange. They were calling for death and disorder when they called your name. This is what I thought and this is what has occurred. They put the scourge back into the fist. By that I mean you and your life. And many men have suffered and died in consequence.”

Barabbas: [referring to Christ] “The other man, too. They’re dying because of that.”

Critical Commentary

Released recently on the Imprint label on Blu-ray is the Biblical epic “Barabbas” (1961) featuring Anthony Quinn in the titular role of a thief who is saved from crucifixion in place of Christ who suffers guilt for the rest of his life, a kind of survivors guilt. It’s literary source material is rock-solid, though: an eponymous Nobel Prize-winning 1950 source novel by Pär Lagerkvist, which was incidentally adapted into a 1953 Swedish film shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The novel is built on antithesis: Jesus dies first among the three crucified – Barabbas dies last. Jesus dies among several of his friends – Barabbas dies alone. Jesus talks to God – Barabbas talks to the darkness. The novel starts with Jesus’ crucifixion and ends with Barabbas’ crucifixion in Rome.  The novel provoked a discussion among Swedish critics about religious matters, such as belief, doubt and the question of suffering in christianity. Some critics discussed it in the light of the existential wounds caused by World War II.

“Barabbas” begins with Pontius Pilate who offers to release either Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas, in keeping with the Passover custom. The crowd gathered for the pardoning chooses Barabbas, and Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. Returning to his friends, Barabbas asks for his lover, Rachel. His friends inform him that Rachel has become a follower of Christ. Rachel soon returns, but she is not happy to see Barabbas. Barabbas witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus. As Jesus dies, the sky turns black, and Barabbas is shaken. He watches Christ’s body sealed in the tomb. On the third morning, Barabbas finds the tomb open. Rachel tells him that Christ has risen, but Barabbas says it is an illusion or his followers have stolen the body. He visits the apostles; they do not know where he is, but also believe he is risen. From here we witness the fate of Barabbas of his life, it is better not to spoil this as the impact of the film I think depends on not knowing this story.

“Barabbas” stands reasonably tall as an engaging and uplifting film whose spectacle and atmosphere outpace its script, but is largely led by Quinn’s reliably strong lead performance and a handful of memorable supporting roles filled out by the likes of Arthur Kennedy, Jack Palance, Ernest Borgnine, and others.

For its time and considering this is a Hollywood movie“Barabbas” is a actually a very dark movie with a plot and themes that underly that. When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, “Barabbas” is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

Technical Commentary

Video

“Barabbas” arrives on blu-ray with a caveat right of the bat even before the movie begins viewers are greeted with the following disclaimer before the main feature begins: “Due to the original source materials, viewers may notice some imperfections in the presentation of this film. The best available master from the copyright owner has been used.” Again this a pretty huge understatement, as “Barabbas” looks several generations removed from what its Technicolor roots actually deserve and suffers from most or all of the same immediately noticeable drawbacks as that other linked title. Fine detail, textures, contrast, density, black levels, and more are all well below average, and the regular appearance of edge enhancement and macro blocking once again rears its ugly head.

Audio

“Barabbas” has a substandard LPCM 2.0 track, the overall fidelity and presence have drawbacks and real dynamic range issues that combine to make an underwhelming listenable experience. Light hissing, popping, crackling, and other subtle distractions are regularly presence, as is a cramped high end that slightly hinders louder conversations, action, and the original score by composer Mario Nascimbene.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary – This track pairs up film historians Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman (recorded together), both of whom offer a solid mixture of comments that range from casual to informative.
  • Film Historian Sheldon Hall on “Barabbas” – Another familiar face from previous Imprint releases, Hall as usual takes a more formal and businesslike approach during this mid-length interview, also comparing and contrasting it to other religious epics. 
  • Richard Fleischer: Looking Back – Fleischer speaks quietly but candidly about his life’s work including earlier possible career paths, his favourite projects, battles with studio heads, happy accidents, stories about his contemporaries, the changing face of cinema, and other interesting topics from his 41-year career. 

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