Tuesday, May 22, 2007


A biblical epic with, as is the Hollywood way, little direct connection to the Bible. Based on a novel by Per Lagerkvist, the story imagines the life of Barabbas, a character who is basically a footnote to the story of Christ's crucifixion; when Pilate (Arthur Kennedy) allows the crowd to pick one prisoner to be set free, they choose the thief Barabbas (Anthony Quinn). When he's freed, he goes back to his mistress Rachel (Silvana Mangano) who much to his dismay has become a follower of Christ. The crucifixion, filmed during an actual eclipse, is well done, and unfortunately is the last truly compelling part of the 140 minute movie. Rachel is the first person to see Christ's empty tomb on Sunday morning, but Quinn is not convinced, and even after talking with Lazarus and the Apostles, he returns to his carousing ways. Later Rachel is stoned to death for preaching Christianity and Barabbas is accused of blasphemy for stealing temple money. As a pardoned prisoner, he cannot be put to death (and since he thinks Jesus died for him, he also thinks he can't be killed by another human). He is sentenced to a life of hard work in the sulfur mines, where men routinely go blind from the poisonous air. Many years later, Barabbas and secret Christian Vittorio Gassman survive a cave-in; nobleman Rufio (Norman Wooland) believes they are charmed so he takes them to Rome to become gladiators. The action scenes in the arena, which feature Jack Palance as a particularly fierce fighter, are pulled off quite well. The film ends with Nero's burning of Rome; Barabbas, who has been fighting the pull of Christianity, finally comes to believe that the huge fire is a sign of the apocalypse and meets up one more time with the apostle Peter (Harry Andrews) before meeting his death in a nicely ironic fashion. Much of the film is lovely to look at, with nice widescreen compositions, but except for Barabbas, no other character comes close to being fleshed out. As is the case in many Biblical epics, the supporting actors (including Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado, who were married at the time) aren't really allowed much more than cameos. Quinn is fine but seems a bit beaten down by the sprawling script. But the main problem here is the overlong running time. Had it been trimmed down a bit, especially in the middle hour, it wouldn't seem like such a slog. Still, if you're tired of movies like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or BEN-HUR at Easter, this might be an acceptable substitute. [TCM]

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