Archive for May 27, 2021

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.