Monday, September 28, 2020

G-d Week: My son, do not regard the Lord's discipline lightly, nor be weary when reproved by him, for the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.


BARABBAS

1961 Italy/1962 USA
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Christopher Fry (based on the novel by Par Lagerkvist)

Spoiler alert: somewhere between moderate and high


Barabbas brings us back to Italy, for when it comes to mid-century sword-and-sandal films, all roads eventually lead to Rome, and now they once again lead straight to the house of Dino De Laurentiis.  The De Laurentiis Cinematografica produced just about every kind of movie imaginable over its history, but in the 1950s, as Italy's industry regained its footing after the war, its founder set his company to compete with Hollywood directly on what I imagine seemed to him like Italy's own turf, the ancient times spectacle.  For a little more than a decade, this drove some of DDL's biggest productions: 1954's Attila was, I think, the first, quickly followed by 1955's Ulysses with Kirk Douglas.  The latter is probably still the most famous cinematic adaptation of The Odyssey, so by no means was De Laurentiis bad at this—but, by 1961, he wanted his very own Bible flick, not realizing that this had put him upon the path that would lead to The Bible... In the Beginning, and hence the desolation of the whole genre, plus what I would have to assume was a fairly painful year for De Laurentiis Cinematografica itself.

In pursuit of an American-style movie, he sought an American director, and the one he got was Richard Fleischer, who was living in Europe already.  A few years earlier, Fleischer had found employment in France with Daryl F. Zanuck, presently on walkabout from 20th Century Fox in large part because of The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators' success—the Fox executive had grown resentful of merely getting a huge salary for such hits whilst the films' independent producer, Frank Ross, was getting a cut of the profits, and Zanuck naturally concluded that, as a massively successful studio boss, he could do at least as well as an independent as Ross had, and keep all that wonderful money for himself.  He was wrong, for the most part (though he was right once, and that was all it took, when it came to 1962's extremely profitable The Longest Day), but by the end of the 1950s Fleischer had grown dissatisfied with his arrangement with Zanuck, which at that time mostly involved directing make-work for Zanuck's European mistress.  In 1961, then, Fleischer jumped ship to De Laurentiis, both men expecting that theirs would be a productive long-term collaboration, though as far as this phase of Fleischer's career went, he and DDL would make only the one film together.  This was Barabbas, released in December 1961 in Italy, and for whatever reason taking ten months to make it across the Atlantic, because nothing says "Christian cinema" like a release in October.

"Christian cinema" would be an overstatement, anyway, and there's a certain irony that a film about one of the New Testament's most pronouncedly anti-Semitic creations was (like a surprising number of New Testament adaptations) directed by a Jew.  And I don't believe it is entirely too much to call the figure of Yeshua Bar Abbas anti-Semitic, though opinions may vary, depending on how one interprets the material, on whether he represents Jewish Christians irritated at Jewish Jews, which I suppose was fair enough, or if he represents decisively-un-Jewish Christians noting that, when the Jews of Jerusalem were presented with a pair of condemned Jesuses, each sons of their father (for that is all "Bar Abbas" means), they chose to save the shitty one.  In Matthew, anyway—the one whose early manuscripts name him Yeshua Bar Abbas, a fairly essential detail that was scrubbed clean by later redactors, and is unfortunately not in this movie—Barabbas's pardon is the exigence for the Jewish mob's spontaneous admission of their blood guilt.  And there's a huge conversation to be had (and has been had) about what the First Century authors' intentions were.  Let us just say that, hopefully, they'd have been a little more careful if they saw what suffering their words would wreak in the centuries to come, but, yeah, maybe not.


Fleischer, then, was tasked with shepherding Christopher Fry's adaptation of Par Lagerkvist's 1950 novel (the second adaptation, though the other one is obscure and Swedish), about the thief and bandit who lived while Jesus died on the cross, and there is probably not a New Testament picture from the heydey of the Bible epic that is more obviously uncomfortable with the New Testament, that discomfort being embodied in its clay-formed hero (Anthony Quinn), whose life stretches out for decades after Jesus's execution, and who spends that time dimly wondering why.  The words that immediately come to mind are "interesting failure," which seems so harsh, though it is something of a failure, in that it's certainly not fun the way you expect movies about gladiators to be fun (because while Barabbas is definitely a "movie about gladiators," it doesn't become one until, like, the last third of a 137 minute runtime), and also in that it's not entirely obvious what goals it does want to achieve, since being a Christian votive object clearly isn't one of them, either.  I have to assume that Barabbas made enough money not to put DDL off Bible movies, but I have no idea how.  It engages with some of the boldest unpleasantness in its genre, from its formal qualities, to the creeped-out way it tackles Jesus's miracles, to the hostile agnosticism that seems to be its protagonist's virtually only operating mode, delivered by way of the performance at the center of it all, Quinn's grubby nobody who acts more like an animal than a human, and mumbles most of his lines.  (And, yes, he's mushmouthed even beyond the excuse, "this Italian movie uses post-recorded dubbing.")  If The Robe and Demetrius are, quintessentially, "1950s films" (and I use those examples less because they're what we just looked at and more because Barabbas's plot comes off as The Robe's and Demetrius's plots mashed into a single, more-cynical movie), then Barabbas feels every frame of its decade, if not even ahead of it.  If you said it were made in 1971, I'd have no cause to disbelieve you, except I'd wonder where the money could have come from.

So we follow Barabbas from the day of his fateful pardon, as he returns to his usual haunts in a mood to celebrate his freedom, cut short as he finds himself awestruck by the heavenly events that attend Jesus's crucifixion: De Laurentiis famously arranged Barabbas to be shot during an actual solar eclipse, and cinematographer Aldo Tonti captures this dying of the light in a legitimately awe-striking way (the sky, as photographed, genuinely blackens), though other shots surrounding it tend toward fairly unconvincing lighting and bad special effects.  Perhaps this is why Barabbas can so easily shake it off, as he shakes everything off, particularly the blandishments of his erstwhile sex friend Rachel (Silvana Mangano), who's spent the months of his incarceration taking solace in the message of the hip new rabbi they put to death.  Barabbas has nothing but sneers for her newfound faith, though he is aghast to find her body in the pit after the Jerusalem authorities stone her for more bravely putting forth the gospel while the disciples, now led by Peter (Harry Andrews), scuttle about in fear before flying off to Galilee, convincing Barabbas that it was always part of some scam.  Soon he finds himself again before Pilate (Arthur Kennedy), for unrelated crimes, and he's shipped off to a Sicilian sulfur mine.  After some years he's reacquainted with the Christian religion by way of a new slave, Sahak (Vittorio Gassmann), and by some luck, and through Barabbas's reputation for being "unkillable," he and Sahak are traded off to a gladiatorial school in Rome, and all along he finds he can't entirely shake off the man who died in his place.


In case it isn't clear, let me say it directly: Barabbas is more a collection of events than a story, practically as aimless as its protagonist, and to the extent it manages a theme that ties it all together, it's one of poking inconclusively at Barabbas's absence of faith, not so much whether Barabbas can be "saved" in the Christian sense, but rather if a man in such a world can bring himself to believe in any higher power, let alone one who promises justice and mercy—and it's really only the First Century setting and this Biblical figure's incidental association with Jesus of Nazareth that makes any of his blind gropings "Christian" at all.  If it's not inimical to religion, it shares Barabbas's skepticism: Sahak's Christianity has made him a hectoring, loud-mouthed idiot; the Sanhedrin murdered a woman for being two steps to the left of their vision of Judaism; and Barabbas's conversation with Lazarus (Michael Gwynn) even feels like a non-Christian getting away with something, presenting the result of Jesus's greatest miracle as a psychologically-shattered wraith who might've been more comatose than dead, and is presently rather more dead than alive.  Even by the end, Barabbas's own most "Christian" act is to see the great fire of Rome, accept at face value the claim that the Christians started it, and gleefully start burning things himself, finding in his agony and ecstasy the possibility that Peter, Rachel, and Sahak were right, and the Christ is coming back to put an end to all this suffering.  When this doesn't work out, and he's crucified alongside Peter and a thousand other Christians—he being the only one who may have earned it—he again finds only doubt.  Whoever edited the Wikipedia summary asserts that, "having finally placed his faith in Christ, his body breathed its last," but that's only what happens in this movie if Barabbas's pet name for God is "darkness."  Which it may even be, as he associates Christ with the eclipse.  But it's damnably, fascinatingly ambiguous for a movie that exists solely because the Bible fad of the 1950s demanded an Italian response.

What it's not, however, is terrifically entertaining, or even as propulsive as it ought to be, in part because of Quinn's tiny little performance, which is disagreeably inconsistent in the early going—the Barabbas who speaks to Lazarus is about 20 I.Q. points smarter than any other version presented here—and it's inconsistent even on precisely what kind of dumb beast he is.  (This evens out eventually, since, after years of slavery, he's at least become one less prone to impulsive behavior.)  One of the bigger problems with the performance, perhaps, is that Fry's screenplay doesn't really explain Barabbas much.  He has no family, and no real friends, either, nor hopes nor dreams, an almost-mute witness to events beyond his ken.  As much as Fry luxuriates in the philosophical "whys" of this Barabbas's continued existence (and really only finding a "why not?"), he's silent on any of the other whys the audience might've been interested in, offering us no explanation, for example, for a Jerusalem mob who prefers this two-bit hood to a popular preacher.  (The screenplay does not explain, either, why the two other thieves who did get crucified weren't offered their chance at a pardon; but hey, neither do the Gospels.)  At least this distinguishes Barabbas's smudgy everycriminal from the political revolutionary of Barabbas' biggest competitor, King of Kings, but it does leave the only real character in this film in a state of perpetual fuzziness.  This is even productive, but makes it hard to find an emotional anchor in him.


And maybe Fleischer is partly to blame, too.  Barabbas is one of the slower-going of all these films—and considering what "these films" are, that's saying something—with Fleischer extremely willing to let his scenes drag on, always for an identifiable reason, but it adds up to a movie that can be, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.  The other reason Barabbas can get wearying is a little harder to complain about, because it's a deliberate choice and characteristic of Fleischer's style as it was evolving in the 1960s, and for all that nobody talks about Fleischer as a filmmaker with a style, there's absolutely style here, from the very first shot that cranes up a palace staircase to frame Pilate in an off-balance arrangement of tottering pillars and skewed geometry, to the final shots of a field of crosses.  There's an incredibly straight line between Barabbas and Soylent Green twelve years down the road, and both films even have the same aesthetic aim: to really impose upon you the feeling of a world dying as we watch it.  Barabbas's Judea is jaundiced and desiccated, and like Soylent Green it is fatiguing just to look at, essentially a monochrome hellscape (this one's yellow rather than green) that stretches out as far as the eye can see, and, frankly, is just straight-up ugly.  This gets a little tiresome without the strong, attention-grabbing performances and driving conspiracy plot that Soylent had, and we only leave this ocher Judea when Barabbas gets thrown into a sulfur mine, so after fifty minutes of yellow, Fleischer asks us, "shit, pal, you thought this was yellow?  You ain't seen yellow."  Though by the same token, it picks up a little here, since the sulfur mine—presented as an even more literal hell—represents a more focused application of the aesthetic, and eventually we do get to Rome, which has a bit more variety.

It may also pick up at this point because it allows Fleischer to do what Fleischer evidently liked doing, which was impressionistic procedural montage.  Barabbas opens with one—the trial and scourging of Christ—that is as experimental as anything in the Bible wave (including The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible, which of course had their own art film moments, the former being composed almost exclusively of them), a staccato piece of editing that pairs the lashing of this faceless Jesus with the weirdest sound effects, plausibly later sold to a Japanese archive, because they sound like the cosmic sounds of a kaiju film, which is a disreputable association though I think it works.  (If we're drawing lines in the Fleischer filmography, it'd be hard to avoid drawing one between Barabbas and his next project, the likewise-slow-and-stately, highly-imagistic Fantastic Voyage, where Fleischer's magisterial style works out much, much better.) The middle part of Barabbas is kind of all montage, with plot beats thrown in, the years-spanning, largely-dialogue-free descent into the sulfuric underworld being the very strongest extended piece of filmmaking here, and the gladitorial training being not terribly far behind.  Once we get there, Barabbas even gins up some action—even a villain, in evil gladiator Torvald (a beefy Jack Palance)—and I should have mentioned long ago, whatever else it does, Barabbas uses the hell out of De Laurentiis's money.  It does not necessarily use it wisely: the improbably vast Jerusalem set winds up almost hitting an uncanny valley of expensive set design, clearly the result of mammoth resources but used mainly as a giant platform for thousands of jeering extras to throng upon, rather than an evocation of a human place with an economy and culture.  Rome again does better, and it's hard to complain too much about a movie that recreates the Colosseum on such a believable scale (if not in the accurate timeframe), that you would have no problem convincing someone that De Laurentiis simply got permission to shoot there.

And so I have no wish to dismiss Barabbas as a failure, or anything particularly close to it, although I would also be wary of recommending it: its spectacle is monotonous and hollow, its spiritual interrogations are by design always buried deeply beneath a ten-foot-thick layer of Quinn's semi-intelligible naturalism, and it's not exactly a blast to watch.  Even so, it's special, amongst the few films of its genre to directly acknowledge that faith is hard to come by, and the only Bible film of its era that denies its hero the certainty of any faith, right to the bitter end.

Score: 7/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)

...plus! Ben-Hur (1959)

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