In keeping with the tradition of pardoning a condemned man on the holiday, Barabbas, the thief, killer, and all around dull guy, is released instead of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the next twenty-five years and what feels like five hours, Barabbas struggles with his guilt and his belief, but generally just stands around. On his journey of semi-discovery, he returns to thieving, works in the mines, and becomes a gladiator, all without his desperately needed morning caffeine.
Following the lead of the quasi-historical, New Testament farces, The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and Ben-Hur (1959), Barabbas slowly (so very slowly) takes us back to the Rome that never was, with the breath-expelling tale of a guy who had a peripheral part in the tale of Jesus, but existed stage left because he wasn’t really very interesting.
Pär Lagerkvist, in his s0-fictitious-it-isn’t-even-Bible-based novel, uses Barabbas to explore faith and how it effects people, and Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Fleischer use his novel to state that God is great, but being able to film your crucifixion scene during a real eclipse is even greater. The movie is essentially two and a half hours of a Christian mother wagging her finger at a rebellious teen. Barabbas messes up, a Christian comes along and tells him that he’s messing up and that Christ is the guy, and Barabbas nods meekly. Repeat many many times.
Shot in Italy with the same feel as those Hercules-verses-the-Evil-Monster sword and sandal masterpieces, much of the dialog was added in post-production. Even when an actor is dubbing himself, it never quite feels right. The surrealism is increased with the use of muted colors and static long shots, making this about the most detached character study you’re likely to find.
Quinn is adequate, if a bit sleepy, in the title role. Unfortunately, most of the Italian cast is dreadful (that’s assuming that someone else didn’t replace their dialog), and the rest of the non-Italians aren’t much better. Ernest Borgnin is a standout, proving that he can bring absolutely no personality to a part. The exception is a young, powerful Jack Palance, who has no idea what movie he’s in. He plays Torvald, who is some kind of fantasy villain that was accidentally cut from Lord of the Rings. Yes, he’s too loud and out of character with everyone else, but he’s also fun and energetic. The movie sings along while he and Quinn are playing gladiator. But that section of the film is far too short.
Although a few artistic, but cold shots (Jesus bordered by light, the stoning of Rachel, the crucifixion under an eclipsed son, the gladiators in practice, the chariot fight) elevate the picture, it will always be an also-ran in the Christian epic competition, and of only middling interest to non-Christians.