It’s Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, but the movie’s real star is the production design by Mario Chiari, one of the least heralded designers of his time. His credits include Miracle in Milan, Volcano, The Golden Couch, I Vitelloni, Le Rouge et le Noir, Vidor’s War and Peace, The Bible (he’s the one who gave us those extraordinary sets of the ark and Tower of Babel), the remake of King Kong, and Visconti’s Ludwig. With Barabbas, the best work of his career, he matches the very persistent tone of death and gloominess that director Richard Fleischer uses most heavily to interpret Pär Lagerkvist’s Nobel Prize-winning novel about the criminal chosen by the mob to live instead of Jesus. Though the market was surfeit with religious spectacles at the time, Barabbas’s lack of huge box office had a great deal to do with the insistent visual depression. This is not a a picture to provide audiences the many pleasures associated with roadshows; it’s a darkened psychological study that goes into inhumane territory that would otherwise get glossed over in a typical Hollywood epic. (Would De Mille have dared to go deep into the lung-clogging sulphur mines with Barabbas without Hedy or perfume-pouring Anne Baxter chasing after him?) Chiari’s set decorations are both realistically austere and close to historians’ accounts, especially the Arena di Verona subbing for Rome’s Colosseum, which is perhaps the closest moviemakers have come to depicting its full bloody circus atmosphere. Giving the designs additional squalor, desolation and despair is the photography of Aldo Tonti, who also had the rare opportunity to capture the real solar eclipse of February 15, 1961 and use it to startling, spiritual effect. But hardticket deluxers require one important factor of integrity, especially for American viewers—sound. Not sure how El Cid ever managed to overcome its own dubbing problems, but Barabbas does not: there’s a fundamental hollowness when hearing the actors speak. We watch some of Anthony Quinn’s impressive dramatics, only to feel minimal impact because the voice doesn’t match what we’re seeing on screen. If not fatal, definitely irritating. With Arthur Kennedy as Pontius Pilate, Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Harry Andrews, Vittorio Gassman in one of his few decent roles, Jack Palance gleefully giving gladiators the baddest name, Ernest Borgnine and Valentina Cortese providing the movie’s lightest moment when she's fussing with her hair while being carried through the streets of Rome. Many foofs have forgotten—the censors had trouble with the violence and sexual situations, thus some posters warned that Barabbas was “Not Suitable for Children.” That also helped kill it as a reserved seat attraction. The screenplay is credited to Christopher Fry, but Nigel Balchin, Diego Fabbiri and Ivo Perilli also worked on it. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis (who originally wanted Fellini to direct). Music by Mario Nascimbene. Original running time 144 minutes; a wide-screen DVD at 137 minutes. Filmed in Super-Technirama 70.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.