Barabbas is a 1961 religious epic film expanding on the career of Barabbas, from the Christian Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark and other gospels. The film stars Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, features Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Andrews, Ernest Borgnine, Vittorio Gassman, and Jack Palance, and was distributed by Columbia Pictures. It was conceived as a grand Roman epic, was based on Nobel Prize-winning Pär Lagerkvist's 1950 novel of the same title. A previous film version of the novel, in Swedish, had been made in 1953.
The film was directed by Richard Fleischer and shot in Verona and Rome under the supervision of producer Dino De Laurentiis. It included many spectacular scenes, including a battle of gladiators in a Cinecittà film studio mock-up of the arena, and a crucifixion shot during an actual total solar eclipse.
Pontius Pilate offers to release either Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas, in keeping with the Passover custom. The crowd gathered for the pardoning chooses Barabbas, and Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. Returning to his friends, Barabbas asks for his lover, Rachel. His friends inform him that Rachel has become a follower of Christ. Rachel soon returns, but she is not happy to see Barabbas.
Barabbas witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus. As Jesus dies, the sky turns black, and Barabbas is shaken. He watches Christ's body sealed in the tomb. On the third morning, Barabbas finds the tomb open and the corpse gone. Rachel tells him that Christ has risen, but Barabbas says it is an illusion, or that his followers have taken the body. He visits the apostles; they do not know where he is, but also believe he is risen.
Rachel preaches in Jerusalem about the Christ. She is stoned to death at the insistence of the priests. Barabbas returns to his criminal ways and robs a caravan transporting several of the priests. He throws stones at one of them rather than fleeing, and is captured by Roman soldiers. The law forbids Pilate from executing someone who has been pardoned, so he sentences Barabbas to lifelong slavery in the sulfur mines of Sicily.
Barabbas survives this hellish existence for the next twenty years. He is chained to Sahak, a sailor who was sent to the mines for allowing slaves to escape. Sahak is a Christian. Sahak at first hates Barabbas for being pardoned instead of "the Master", but the two men eventually become friends. Over time, Sahak becomes too weak to work. As the guards are about to kill him the mine is destroyed in an earthquake. Sahak and Barabbas are the only survivors. Julia, the superstitious wife of the local prefect, considers them blessed. The prefect is due to leave for Rome to be appointed to the Senate. Julia insists that Barabbas and Sahak accompany him for good luck.
Once in Rome, the men are trained to become gladiators by Torvald, the top gladiator in Rome. After a gladiatorial event, Sahak is overheard sharing his faith with other gladiators, and is condemned to death for treason. When a firing squad deliberately miss with their thrown spears, Torvald executes Sahak. The next day, Torvald and Barabbas battle in the arena. Barabbas wins, impressing Emperor Nero, who sets him free. Barabbas takes Sahak's corpse to the Catacombs, where the local Christians are worshiping. They give him a proper burial.
Barabbas becomes lost in the Catacombs. When he eventually emerges, Rome is on fire. Barabbas is told that the Christians started the fire. Believing that the end of the world has come (as Rachel and Sahak had taught), Barabbas sets fire to more buildings. He is confronted by Roman soldiers and tells them that he is a follower of Christ. He is imprisoned with several other Christians, among them the apostle Peter. Peter admonishes Barabbas for committing arson, informing him that Christians would not do such a thing. Afterwards, the Christians are executed by mass crucifixion in the persecutions that follow the fire. Throughout his life, Barabbas was reputed to be the man who could not die; having finally placed his faith in Christ, he dies.
The music score by Mario Nascimbene, which was conducted by Franco Ferrara, the noted conductor and lecturer on conducting at several famous international academies, was noted for its unusual, stark experimental component – the composer referred to his work, which included the introduction of electronic sounds achieved by the manipulation of tape speeds, as "new sounds". The depiction of the crucifixion was filmed on 15 February 1961 during an actual total eclipse of the sun, which was considered a supernatural event in the Judean age.
Barabbas received positive reviews; it currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.Nominee Best Color Cinematography - Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (Aldo Tonti)
Nominee Best Costume Design - Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (Maria De Matteis)
Nominee Best Production Design - Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (Mario Chiari)
Selected Top Foreign Films of the Year - National Board of Review
Hughes, Howard (2011). Cinema Italiano - The Complete Guide From Classics To Cult. London - New York: I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-1-84885-608-0.