• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, September 03, 2017

    Barabbas (1961)

    There's a common tendency in western thinking to try and find a rational explanation for some of the miracles that we find in the Bible, as if a timely arrival of plagues of locusts here and a psychosomatic condition there, solves everything. One of such theory has grown up around the three hours of darkness said to accompany with Jesus' crucifixion, namely that it could have perhaps occurred at the same time as an eclipse. The link between Jesus' death and Passover (which is determined by a full moon) and the absence of a spring-time eclipse in the possible years of Jesus' death make this unlikely, yet it's nevertheless an interesting theory, and, after the solar eclipse in North America two weeks ago, I thought it was about time I reviewed this one.

    It's unclear whether producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Richard Fleischer bought in to the above theory, but they did find themselves pondering the problem of how to film night as day when they realised they were just days away from a total eclipse occurring just a few dozen miles away. So it was that eighty cast and crew headed up to the northern Italian town of Roccastrada.1

    The decision to shoot during the eclipse was made just 48 hours beforehand, and doing so was uncharted territory. The film's director of photography, Aldo Tonti, working in the dark (both metaphorically and literally) moved the camera so that the Sun shone directly into the centre of the lens, and in the end resorted to taking off any filters, fully opening the lens, and hoping it would all work out.

    Even if not historically accurate, the results are spectacular, comprising one of the earliest film recordings of an eclipse and giving the scene an eerie feel that is far superior to the equivalent scenes in the other biblical epics of the era. Having witnessed the eclipse that crossed the UK in 1999 I can recall the strangeness of the moment which Tonti's work captures so brilliantly.

    The impact of this eerie moment is heightened by Mario Nascimbene's haunting score and by the off-hand way in which the film has treated Jesus up to this moment. Whilst movie audiences were used to films in which Jesus was only a minor character, the lead up to this scene had largely stripped him of any significance. His first appearance in the film is when the camera begrudgingly nudges left to incorporate him around the fringes of the opening shot of Pontius Pilate. The shot begins shooting up a set of steps towards Pilate, emphasising his power: Jesus' almost incidental incorporation in its far reaches emphasises his weakness.

    The shot also positions the viewer as if they are in the crowd (which is routing for Barabbas), thus enabling the audience to associate with him, whilst also making them complicit in his death. Jesus' entrance is made all the more derisory when contrasted with the first shot of the film's anti-hero Barabbas moments later the sole figure sitting up directly into the only beam of light entering his cell.

    That said the film seems to alternate between moments when Jesus is treated in a mundane fashion like an insignificant extra and moments that hint at his divinity. There follows shots are of Jesus being flogged in scenes inspired by Caravaggio's lighting and composition that references Diego Velázquez's" Christ contemplated by the Christian Soul" accompanied by the distorted screams of the crowd. Then as Barabbas he leaves the dark of his prison to come into daylight the first thing he sees is Jesus. This is shown as a point-of-view shot where a dazzling light appears to be emanating from Jesus's himself, but quickly fades as Barabbas's eyes adjust. And these striking visuals are accompanied by high-pitched strings, which are repeated moments later when Barabbas accidentally bumps into the cross because he is looking at Jesus. This is an example of the many "suoni nuovi "that Nascimbene uses throughout the film, "new sounds that seem to inhabit a space between sound effects and underscoring".2

    In one sense Jesus' and Barabbas's paths have separated at this point. Barabbas is free; Jesus is condemned. Yet Barabbas cannot get away from the "prophet". He arrives back amongst his friends only to find his girlfriend has become one of his followers. As he tries to laugh off  his experiences, Jesus passes by his window en route  to Golgotha. When he tries to sleep things off he awakes in an eclipse fearing the light he saw before and the darkness that now envelops him. Quinn's Barabbas is clueless as to what is really happening. Seven years after La Strada Quinn channels much of Zampano here. Barabbas too is a brute whose world is in turmoil after encountering a person whose sheer goodness leaves him dumbfounded. Like the eclipse itself, the light is there and yet somehow Barabbas left fumbling in the darkness, his encounter with Jesus haunting him rather than freeing him.

    The film, already the second adaptation of Pär Lagerkvist's 1950 novel following Alf Söjberg's 1953 adaptation, makes several changes to the text. The "hare-lipped" woman of the novel, who befriends Barabbas, witnesses the empty tomb and then becomes Christianity's first martyr, is here transformed into Rachel, Barabbas's girlfriend. Her death so enrages Barabbas that he goes on the rampage, gets recaptured by the authorities and is sent to the sulphur mines.

    The scenes in the sulphur mines are unusual for a biblical epic. Barabbas is held there for twenty years, the passing of time skilfully laid out through a long montage marking his gradual descent deeper and deeper under the earth until he reaches its bottom level. Eventually he is chained to Sahak, who eventually reveals that he is a Christian. The two fight, and then bicker over Barabbas's name as it emerges that, even after twenty years, it still stirs up hatred in both of them. Barabbas is clearly still disturbed by his brief encounter with Jesus. For Sahak the way in which Barabbas is still haunted by his past is evidence of Jesus' significance. "What other man's death could have troubled you so long? Eventually Barabbas agrees to Sahak scratching a cross on his slave tag, not because he believes, but crucially because he "want(ed) to believe".

    Having somehow escaped a catastrophic collapse of the sulphur mines, Barabbas is taken to the Coliseum to fight as a gladiator, in the film's biggest diversion from the novel. Despite his age and the two decades he has spent slaving in the sulphur mines Barabbas seems impervious to his opponents defeating. Even the sadistic defending champion Torvald, played by a hammy Jack Palance is beaten in a somewhat lucky encounter. Not only is the observation is made five times in the script that Jesus died instead of/in place of Barabbas,3 but there is mounting evidence that Barabbas cannot be killed, as if sentenced to wander the earth unable to make peace with himself.

    Just as Zampano fails to comprehend Gelsomina, so Barabbas fails to understand what God wants of him. Having proved victorious in the arena he seeks out the city's Christians, but even Peter can't help him. Mistakenly thinking the Christians are burning Rome he is arrested in the act of spreading the fire. "Why can't God make himself plain?" he laments when he discovers his error. "Every time I've seen it end up the same way, with torments and dead bodies with no good come of it." Yet Barabbas' misunderstanding and subsequent confession of faith seem to break the spell. As Stephen C. Meyer observes "It is only after proclaiming himself to be a Christian that Barabbas becomes susceptible to death."4

    The film ends, however, on a more ambiguous note. Barabbas finally is crucified, but it is unclear whether his dying words "Darkness. I give myself up into your keeping." are an affirmation of faith or a denial of it. Of all the biblical epics this is the one that leaves itself most open to an existentialist interpretation. The story was remade in 2012 with Billy Zane in the lead role.
    1 - New York Times, 7th October 1962 cited in Joel K. Harris, "Totality, Cinema, and Crucifixion" in Astronomy Magazine, November 1994
    2 - Meyer, Stephen C. (2015) Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.198.
    3 - Kreitzer, Larry J. (1993) The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow, Melksham, Wilts. Sheffield University Press. p.85.
    4 - Meyer (2015), p.208.
    Full script available at:
    A study guide is also available from:



    • At 8:56 pm, September 03, 2017, Blogger angmc43@hotmail.com said…

      The scourging scene- with its striking sound effects- scared my 12-year-old self when I first saw it on the TNT network (I was surfing between this broadcast and THE SIMPSONS' "Flaming Moe" episode premiere in November 1991). Led to some...complications (nothing serious though).

    • At 12:27 am, September 04, 2017, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      The scene in which Barabbas tries to spread the fire in Rome was really intriguing to me when I first saw it, because several years earlier a professor of mine (Anthony Barrett, author of Caligula: The Corruption of Power) had asserted in one of my classes that some Christians might indeed have helped the fire to spread before Nero condemned them, the idea being that Christianity was an apocalyptic religion and the Christians would have seen the fires as a good thing, ushering in the end of the world. I asked my professor why the Christians would have reacted to this fire that way if fires were as common in Rome as we had been told they were. He replied that the size of this particular fire might have made the difference. (I cannot recall if he was expressing his own opinion or simply letting us know what other Classical Studies historians have argued.)

      Anyway. When I saw Barabbas and how the film suggests that there might have been some truth to Nero's claim -- Barabbas, a man associated with the Christians, really is setting fire to things -- I wondered if the writers had been influenced by these historians at all.

    • At 6:50 pm, September 04, 2017, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for that angmc43. The sound effects are quite impactful aren't they. Meyer discusses them quite a bit in his book.

      Peter, I must admit I've heard so many theories and counter theories over the years on this one I'm never quite sure which way is up anymore!



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