This is a violent, dark, and sometimes depressing story that is quite a change from many religious films.
Based on a novel, this film imagines what happened to Barabbas after he was chosen over Jesus to be released before crucifixion. Anthony Quinn is a perfect choice as the unrepentant thief who goes back to the world he knows- crime and carousing. His favorite prostitute Rachel, however, has become a Christian and is later stoned for it. Barabbas is not just an observer, he sees Jesus go to the crucifixion, and later finds Rachel at the open grave.
Barabbas goes back to his old gang of thieves, murders the new leaders, and they rob some Jewish clerics. Caught, he is sent to the sulfur mines for life, where he meets Christian Sahak, played by Vittorio Gassman. Sahak knows Barabbas' name and reputation, and attacks him. They eventually become friends, since they are shackled together in the pit. Barabbas survives in the mine for twenty years, refusing to die. He is tormented by the memory of his near death years before, and he sees the sacrifice Jesus made not just for him, but for all of us.
Barabbas and Sahak survive a cave-in at the mine, and are taken to Rome as good luck charms by a newly appointed senator's wife. They are recruited to fight in the coliseum, ruled by a maniacal gladiator played by a very young Jack Palance. The duo also make contact with a Christian servant, Ernest Borgnine in a small but good role. Eventually, Sahak dies for his beliefs at the hands of Palance, and Barabbas has his bloody revenge on the field. Granted his freedom, Barabbas takes Sahak's body to a group of Christians, who reject Barabbas' half hearted attempts at Christianity. Barabbas misunderstands God's word and helps in the torching of Rome, eventually ending up a martyr himself.
Just under two and a half hours, there are a few slow spots. The cast is excellent, however, and Fleischer does an impressive job with a cast of thousands. No CGI to rely on here, Fleischer uses his assorted set pieces to their fullest extent without trying to fix or better anything in editing. What is left are a series of scenes that can stand on their own as highlights in early 1960's film making, when the cinema was hotly competing with television to win viewers back. The stoning of Rachel, the sulfur mine collapse, the burning of Rome: all are unforgettable scenes.
Two stretches of the film are very memorable. First, an extended sequence between Palance and Quinn fighting in the coliseum. There is no dialogue, just brutal violence and action. Another scene is the final tracking shot of dozens of crucified Christians, including the now ironic Barabbas. This shot sent chills down my spine.
This film is very dark and very different. Barabbas is a man torn between his heathen upbringing, and what he knows is right through what he has witnessed in Jerusalem and Rome, no matter how much he denies what he has seen.
Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis in Italy, this film has a European feel that makes it different and lends a certain credibility to the proceedings. The Oscar heavy cast does not fall victim to any preachy speeches or effects laden miracles, these are seemingly ordinary people caught up in tumultuous times.
I highly recommend Barabbas to any film fan, especially those who think "Gladiator" is the only decent sword and sandals epic out there. (* * * * *) out of five stars.