On Barabbas

by Dan Sallitt

Published in The Film Journal, Issue 13, 2006.

Dan Sallitt is a filmmaker and film writer living in New York. He was the film critic for the Los Angeles Reader, and his writings have appeared in the Chicago Reader, Slate, Wide Angle, Senses of Cinema, the Nashville Scene, the Minneapolis City Pages, and other venues.

Barabbas (1962), one of the most impressive films directed by Richard Fleischer, was adapted from Nobel Prize winner Par Lagerkvist’s 1950 novel, which had already been the basis of a good 1953 film by the Swedish director Alf Sjoberg.

Lagerkvist’s material is too distinctive to be overridden by a directorial personality: it comes with a powerful and lucid emotional orientation and an unusual storytelling strategy. It is inspired by the familiar New Testament story of Barabbas, the criminal whom the people of Jerusalem pardoned in preference to Jesus of Nazareth. In Lagerkvist’s tale, Barabbas is an unthoughtful and brutal man who is nonetheless emotionally affected by his proximity to Christ’s life and death. Troubled by the idea that the man who went to death in his place might have been God, he spends 20 turbulent years torn between his anger at the growing cult of Christianity and his unacknowledged desire to believe and atone.

The material is not marked by skepticism: it posits Christ’s divinity as a truth that exerts a powerful magnetic force on the souls that come in contact with it. Paradoxically, the very strength of Lagerkvist’s ideological conviction gives him the freedom to challenge the assumptions that underlie commercial storytelling.

The historical narrative of Barabbas is the growth of Christianity and its triumph in the face of persecution. This story line is carried forward by secondary characters: the apostle Peter (Harry Andrews) and the Christian Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) who accompanies Barabbas through the Roman sulfur mines and gladiator camps. Barabbas himself (Anthony Quinn), the story’s central consciousness, is outside of this historical narrative because of his internal struggle: he is rendered essentially an observer, a figure who witnesses the truth of Christ’s divinity and exposes the viewer to his philosophical attempts to explain away or to understand. Because he is not invested with ideological authority by the film, he is capable of more surprise and more freedom than a Christian protagonist would be (for instance, we do not know whether he will spare or execute the fallen gladiators under his sword), though neither he nor the audience is permitted to enjoy his freedom wholeheartedly.

Lagerkvist suggests but does not enact the archetypal story of conversion, wherein the protagonist’s narrative eventually becomes one with the historical narrative of Christianity. The phantom archetype of the conversion story threatens time and again to obtrude, but each time it is driven away, bathing the film in sadness (the desolating scene of the scratching away of the cross from Barabbas’s slave medallion; the abject, genocide-provoking failure of Barabbas’s attempt to burn Rome). At times, Barabbas seems to want to assert his own narrative, a gangster or action film story, over the religious narrative: “A man can understand this,” he says when he and Sahak are consigned to the gladiator camps. But of course he cannot be the undivided protagonist he wants to be. Perhaps the conversion narrative finally triumphs in the film’s last shot of Barabbas’s own passion on the cross—and perhaps not. Like Barabbas, we are given no clear sign: we see only a man dying, as he has lived, in conflict.

By deferring Barabbas’s certainty and conversion, Lagerkvist turns his story into a parable of humankind struggling with God’s silence. Barabbas is painfully, repeatedly explicit on this point: “Why can’t God make himself plain?” is the leitmotif of his running dialogue with the Christian within him. It is interesting that the essential religious conviction of Lagerkvist’s story is what makes it possible for such a daring question to be posed within the prevailing ideology of the commercial film industry.

Lagerkvist’s story is not the only element of Barabbas that threatens to subsume the director’s contribution. At this point in film history, Anthony Quinn had created a persona unlike any other actor’s: he was strongly identified with violent, coarse, life-loving protagonists whose misbehavior was revealed as childlike, correctable by appeals to their innate sentimentality. I sense that Quinn is not held in high regard today; but the fusion of Lagerkvist’s philosophically challenged protagonist and Quinn’s mumbling, fidgeting puppydog savage is one of the main reasons that Fleischer’s version of the story lingers in the memory longer than Sjoberg’s thoughtful earlier adaptation. Surely few actors convey confusion so convincingly. From our first clear sight of him, emerging from the Roman court blinking from light deprivation and from the uncanny radiance of the nearby Christ, Quinn seems suffused with a longing that is touching because his effort to hide it seems genuine. Instead of the heroic postures that industry actors adopt so naturally (and which the role of Barabbas does not necessarily discourage), Quinn habitually shuffles and turns his head away from the camera, uncomfortable in his own skin.

If one cannot attribute all Barabbas’s originality to Fleischer, one can certainly give him credit for understanding the unusual dramatic challenges of Lagerkvist’s material. Fleischer’s first level of response to the project appears to be a visual schema, carried through with surprising, if not quite total, consistency. Closeups in Barabbas are reserved for moments when the presence of Christ is felt; long shots depict the mundane world which will be invaded by the awareness of Christ. Within the “worldly” long shots, Fleischer resorts often to compositions built around diagonal tension, with a foreground character on one side of the frame and a background character on the other.

(Diagonal tension within the frame is not unusual in widescreen films of the period, and not unusual in Fleischer’s other work. But it is not mandatory either. Note, for instance, his preference for head-on, often symmetrical compositions in the light (though sadistic) entertainment The Vikings; or his relatively loose and direct framing in These Thousand Hills.)

The progression of the story is thus accompanied by shifts in the visual plan. In the early sections of the film, Fleischer relies heavily on long shots and diagonal compositions. He omits an establishing closeup for Barabbas as he emerges from jail; shoots the introductory scene of Barabbas’s orgiastic reunion with his gang almost entirely in an unbroken long-take; and even stays in a mobile full shot for the sketchy “love” scenes between Barabbas and Rachel (Silvana Mangano). (My sense is that it is highly unusual for a commercial production of the time not to squander closeups on even the most superficial and insignificant romantic interest. Certainly Fleischer was willing to devote close shots to romantic scenes in otherwise long-shot-oriented works like Bandido and Violent Saturday.) But Fleischer cuts to closeup when Barabbas bumps into Jesus being placed under the cross, and again when Jesus carries his cross past Barabbas’s window. As Barabbas begins to investigate the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, the diagonal tension in the long shots remains, but the long shots are increasingly intercut with closeups. During the film’s middle section in the sulfur mines, Fleischer begins to move closer with his camera—no doubt because he is shooting in confined spaces, but also because Barabbas is moving closer to Christ through his association with Sahak. The increasing number of closeups bestowed upon Barabbas seems to reflect his new status as the bearer of the Christ feeling.

This schematic approach, a purification of Griffith’s film syntax, is certainly interesting, and revealing of Fleischer’s temperament, but I think it would be a mistake to mark it down as a virtue in itself. (I know I’m getting bored just writing about it.) Barabbas is an exciting film, not because of any consistencies that Fleischer imposes, but because of certain directorial inclinations to which his schemas give play.

Fleischer’s long shots are characteristically a bit longer than convention leads us to expect, and his films are marked by a fascinating conflict between the urgency of the dramatic material and the remote choreography of figures in open space. Fleischer does not exactly undercut the heroic aspects of his story: certainly Barabbas cuts an impressive figure in a fight, and his larger-than-life qualities are never dispelled. But the distant, geometric camera mitigates against the creation of myth (the opening scene on the steps of Pilate’s Roman-styled court invites us to imagine what Anthony Mann would have done with the material) and suspends the story’s dramatic charge in a mobile, multivalent space.

Sometimes Fleischer’s love of mobile long shots is carried so far that it becomes arty, an end rather than a means. One early scene, in which a drunken Barabbas, with an even more drunken female companion, starts a meaningless nighttime street fight, is shot almost entirely in a single long-take long shot that brings out an element of humor in the action (the woman passes out early in the shot, and her unconscious figure remains one of the shot’s vertices). Even more striking is Barabbas’s fight with the men who challenge his leadership of his gang of thieves: a serene, extreme-long-shot lateral track across a stream that cuts, after the brutal action is completed, to one of the closeups that signal Barabbas’s inner turmoil. Later in the film, during the first gladiator match, the execution of one anonymous gladiator at the hands of another is filmed in long shot, but without cuts—dynamism is sacrificed for a frightening combination of explicitness and distance.

Another strategy in Barabbas amounts to a schema, though perhaps a less satisfying one. Nearly every scene that pertains directly to Christ’s life and death—his flagellation, the crucifixion, Barabbas’s visit to Lazarus—is filmed in an expressionistic style, with extreme contrasts of light and darkness and a suppression of natural light, natural sound, and background detail. The expressionist approach carries over to one other long passage: the scenes in the sulfur mines, which are suffused with orange light and crowded with the ragged bodies of the suffering and dying slave labor force. The visual analogy to hell is too overt to be very effective.

Perhaps this approach yields less aesthetic capital because expressionism doesn’t draw anything too distinctive out of Fleischer. (I don’t think of him as a director who can be counted upon to play to his strengths.) Much more interesting are the scenes in which he uses natural light and sound to create a kind of heightened naturalism, an effect of realism constructed from swaths of ambience. Fleischer favors this kind of effect as a general rule, and here he sometimes sets up a contrast between the expressionist interludes and adjacent scenes in which naturalistic elements are exaggerated. For instance, the crucifixion is followed by the striking daytime scene of Barabbas watching Jesus’s body being taken down from the cross, against a somewhat unexpected soundtrack of whistling wind. Similarly, the hellish scenes in the sulfur mine are bracketed with sunny, mountainous outdoor scenes: especially interesting is the lovely deep-focus diagonal tracking shot of Barabbas and Sahak, having survived the mine cave-in, talking about religion while pulling a plow in the sunlit fields above the mine (undoubtedly backbreaking work, but feeling in this context like a summer vacation). One of the film’s gentlest moments is the oddly leisurely scene of Barabbas waking up on the first Easter morning, slowly rising from the bed he shared with a woman in a tiny hut that opens out on one side to overlook the sunlit buildings of Jerusalem, with cocks crowing in the distance and wind fluttering the hut’s canopy. The mood of the scene is in odd counterpoint to the drama, which is here centered on Barabbas’s insistent need to prove that the rumor of Jesus’s impending resurrection is false. But Fleischer opts for an evocation of the mundane, with hints of the idyllic.

Fleischer’s attraction to schemas is a sign of a rather conceptual sensibility. This sensibility gives his films a pleasing lucidity, which is especially evident in his filming of action: the impressive gladiator battles in Barabbas are streamlined and structured with careful, rather minimalist cross-cutting. In general, Fleischer seems to devote some thought to the kind of decoupage and framing appropriate to each film. One senses, for instance, that he consciously (and wisely) started Mandingo with a classical style of decoupage to set off the story’s bizarre inverted identification structure, and that the droll, standoffish long takes of Bandido were his way of creating a certain emotional distance from the violent drama, as befits the essentially playful story. Though Fleischer has a definite preference for certain visual strategies, it’s hard to think of any of his major works that doesn’t take a visual approach slightly different from the others.

Fleischer’s conceptual inclination can sometimes lead him astray as well. One gets a hint of such a danger in the scene in the catacombs, where Barabbas, left alone by the Christians who consider him a betrayer, is suddenly lost amid the catecombs’ forking paths, presented by Fleischer as bifurcations of the visual space. The thematic content of the images decisively overwhelms their textural aspect. An earlier courtroom scene, where Barabbas babbles incoherently after being sentenced to the sulfur mines, is weirdly photographed over the shoulders of a grouping of darkened human figures in the foreground that resembles a mask superimposed on the image. The conceptual impulse here is more puzzling than reductive.

Whole films of Fleischer’s have fallen victim to this conceptual tidiness (Crack in the Mirror comes to mind). Certainly Fleischer’s defenders have to get up a little earlier in the morning because of his uneven filmography, which may be due more to his own decisions than to bad material. One suspects that he saw himself as a Hollywood professional who could adapt to whatever material was thrown at him, rather than a creator with particular inclinations and inspirations.

Like other of Fleischer’s best films (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, Mandingo), Barabbas tells a story of divided, not always sympathetic characters who sometimes work against the audience’s rooting interest. Something interesting seems to happen when these unsettled emotions are suspended in the medium of Fleischer’s remote, ambient spaces.