Who was Barabbas?
The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover. As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice. He could either release Barabbas or Jesus. For what crime was Barabbas being held? The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.” Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer. The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary. Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.
(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans. There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role. I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)
Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?
According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.
Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer. Barabbas or Jesus? Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself. A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared. Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.
(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming. It’s a stunning scene.)
For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety. When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus. (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.) Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior. Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily. He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance). Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.
Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise. I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances. I mean, don’t me wrong. I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics. But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.
But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting. As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion. Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome. Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy. The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes. Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption. Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast. Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.
Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film. 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.