Judge Bill Gibron wonders how history would have changed had the crowd chanted "We want brownie brittle" instead.
Can we have the back story on the two thieves that were actually crucified with Christ now?
How do you make a mini-series out of a simple story in the Bible? How do you take an allegorical figure and flesh him out with more meaning than the limited amount he already had? Well, if you're director Roger Young and a collection of screenwriters, you turn to Nobel Prize winning author Pär Lagerkvist's book about the "thief" Barabbas (that's how it is spelled here) and set up shop. The results are a ridiculous blend of Christian Television budgetary constraints and third tier casting concerns. We meet up with Barabbas (a halfway decent Billy Zane, Titanic) as he is being judged. Instead of saving Jesus (Marco Foschi) and crucifying him, the crowd goes the other way. This makes Pilate (Filippo Negro, Just Married) perplexed and his Christ-loving wife (Anna Valle) livid. We then flashback to Barabbas' beginnings as a Good Book troublemaker. He is like a crime boss, recruiting likeminded criminal types while trying to woo a woman named Esther (Cristiana Capotondi , The Worst Weekof My Life). When he ends up under the influence of a zealot named Kedar (Hristo Shopov, The Passion of the Christ), our lead is doomed.
It took a long time for me to figure out how I felt about Barabbas. I have a natural bias against Biblical Epics (they almost never get the religion right) and I think that, in some ways, the various works that claim to be interpreting God's word are only in it for the stink of self-righteousness they can achieve with same. Now, I am a fan of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ if only because it presents a singular vision offered up by someone completely invested in the material. You would never question the Lethal Weapon and Braveheart star's faith after seeing it (Machete Kills? That's another story). Here, Christianity is set aside so that we can have some pseudo serious discussions on Rome and its influence in the Holy Land, organized religion and the growing role of the elders, and just about anything other than the simplicity of the last act denouement. When the crowd claims Barabbas over Christ, they are showing their naiveté, something our Lord would lament from the cross. Here, the loose adaptation of Lagerkvist's storyline wants to add more. Instead, it strips the situation of its meaning.
Granted, back in the early '60s, when Bible films were crawling out of the wreckage of every post-Cecil B. DeMille wannabe, something like Anthony Quinn in Barabbas made sense. It tried to break free of the mold (and movie mildew) the genre was certainly suffering from. The same with Passion. Here, thanks to its overwrought narrative and made on foreign soil conceits, Barabbas plays like a poor man's peplum. We keep waiting for the scene when gladiators show up and start lopping off the heads of the good Christians in the camp. If this is supposed to be history, it's subpar. Even Jesus doesn't seem up for the fight. Barabbas reminds me that, when it comes to Hollywood and the hopes of those for whom faith is a full time job, there will never be a meeting of the minds. One needs an accurate and full depiction to vindicate their time spent praying and paying penance. The other wants to entertain and exploit. It's a recipe for disaster, though this mini-series is far from one.
That being said, it's not difficult to see people embracing this take on the material and not carrying a hoot about what it says about Tinseltown and its religious tolerances. Zane is good, but most of the cast is lost in an "English is my second language" lament. They may look the part, but the language barrier belies our ability to indentify, or in some cases, understand them. There's also a weird intention on the part of the plot to have Barabbas arrive at many of the telling events in Christ's life. Did you know he was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? Tell that to your Sunday School teacher. Granted, without any help from the crafters of the Gospels, the numerous writers responsible for this stuff have to come up with something. In fact, Barabbas often feels like an excuse to cover some of the same territory that other epics have presented without actually having to be anchored to things like facts and previous interpretations. Sure, this is a laughable excuse for religious entertainment, but we've seen sillier, and more specious before.
Presented in a 1080i, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, Barabbas looks solid. You can tell this was shot on film and then brought over to the digital domain. The colors are rich, the blacks deep, and the detail measureable. Granted, HD also gives away many of the subpar CG and F/X, but that's to be expected. As for the sound situation, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 provides a promising level of ambience and spatial impact. Again, such an upgrade exposes the dubious dubbing of most of the cast, but at least the dialogue and score are treated well. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray package offers up no bonus features. No added content whatsoever.
Barabbas may be nothing more than a footnote fleshed out to make way for more sword and sandal byplay, but with a wealth of material in your current copy of King James just waiting to be explored, perhaps we should put such specious speculation aside. This isn't bad, or campy, or clueless. Barabbas is just unnecessary. After all, if God felt his story didn't need more analysis, who are we mere mortals to disagree.
Guilty. An unnecessary entry in an already tricky genre.
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