Every so often, a genre manages to produce a film that exceeds its generic restrictions, that rises above the worst tendencies of its predecessors and becomes a work of transcendent and powerful beauty. Barabbas, the 1962 film, is just one of those entries. Emerging out of the midcentury cycle of historico-biblical epics that had already produced some truly fine films (such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus), Barabbas continued to demonstrate the ways in which the epic could tackle the pressing questions faced by a world coming to terms with its place in the greater temporal scheme of history.
Taking as its subject the minor biblical figure of Barabbas–the man pardoned and released while Christ was crucified–the film follows Barabbas as he struggles to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s death. Denied his own ability to die, he can only watch powerlessly as his lover is stoned to death by an angry mob and he is eventually sent to prison and hard labor in the sulfur mines of Sicily. He is eventually freed from the mines by a collapse, but is then taken to Rome to fight in the arena. There, he witnesses the death of his friend (and Christian) Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, after burying him with appropriate solemnity in the catacombs, he partakes in a great fire. Convicted of treason by Rome, he is crucified with numerous other Christians, and the film ends with his death.
A film like Barabbas could only have been produced in the 1960s, when the genre of the historical epic had not only begun to fray, but when the religious and political culture that had given birth to it had also begun to crumble under the onslaught of the changes of the era. While certainly many of the conflicts and contradictions of the 1950s roiled beneath the surface of many earlier epics (as I have argued elsewhere), the end of the cycle saw them exploding onto the surface of the film itself. Thus, Barabbas stages the fundamental conflict between embodiment and transcendence, a binary and a tension that it never entirely resolves to its own (or the viewer’s) satisfaction.
Quinn’s Barabbas is a man who struggles to think of any world outside of the body. He grunts and groans and sweats across the screen (to paraphrase one review of the film), every aspect of his manner an indicator of his embodied-ness and his rootedness in his own world. Quinn’s strangled vocalizations only heighten this sense of his own untranscendent nature, his own inability to find satisfaction beyond his own limited views of the world.
It’s really no wonder that finds it so difficult to attain the sense of transcendence that the Christians around him do. As a poor man in the stews of Jerusalem, his only distraction is in engaging in drinking and whoring, and then the Romans force him to first work in the sulfur mines and finally in the arena. Again and again, the film denies him the possibility of transcending or even understanding; he is only ever a body that manages to survive rather than actually live. Even as the film nears its end, he finds that he cannot entirely conceive of the world beyond the flesh that the Christians constantly espouse. After seeing that the city has been set aflame, he decides that it must indeed (as the Romans assert) be the Christians that have set it, and so he joins in the fray. Unfortunately, he does not realize that the Christians have no set the fire, the emperor has, and he has thus inadvertently sentenced all of them to death. Like so many other epic heroes of the midcentury cycle, he seems powerless to change the course of events that surround him, even when it is his actions, unintended as they are, that set them in motion.
The film favors a darker, more somber colour palette than one sees in many of the other Technicolor epics of the period, in keeping with the darkness and bleakness of the worldview. And no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Jack Palance, who as always brings his own particular brand of skeletal psychopathy to the role of one of the arena’s premier players. His death, while immensely satisfying, is also yet another sign of the fact that Barabbas cannot quite escape the cycle of death and mortality that keeps him mired in the world in which he finds himself.
Barabbas is an intensely evocative and haunting film, one that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll. In many ways, the ending is even bleaker and more pessimistic than Spartacus (to which it can be compared). Even at the end, it remains ambiguous whether Barabbas has truly understood the message preached by Christ, of the possibility of a world beyond that of the body. And indeed the last shot we get is of Barabbas’ abjected body hanging on the cross, having finally achieved the death that has eluded him since his fateful exchange with Jesus, a fatal reminder of the futility of embodied human agency.