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Without a doubt, I am a fan of the genre of filmmaking known as the religious epic. Highly popular in the fifties and sixties religious epics have since gone out of fashions, because the expense of recreating the ancient world is astronomical (GLADIATOR for example), not to mention the fact that todayís audiences have lost interest in this type of subject matter. Still, many religious epics of the past now stand as true cinematic classics and they continue to find new audiences thanks to cable broadcasts and the DVD format. Of religious epics, BARABBAS ($25) is a film that hasnít achieved the status of the better-known genre entries, but this under appreciated gem is superior in a number of ways to the films that eclipse it. First of all, BARABBAS isnít troubled by stiff performances or the sheer hokeyness that one finds in a number of best loved religious epics. Second, BARABBAS has a sense of gritty reality that marries phenomenally well with the filmís production design and impressive recreation of the ancient world.

Based upon the novel by Pšr Lagerkvist, BARABBAS offers a fictionalized account of what happened to the criminal who was freed in place of Jesus Christ, when Pontius Pilate offered the mob a choice between the two men. After Christ is crucified, Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) finds himself troubled by the fact that a seemingly good man went to his death instead of him. However, his troubled conscience isnít enough to keep Barabbas from returning to his thieving murdering ways. For his latest crimes, Barabbas escapes death yet again, but is instead sentenced to work as a slave in the sulfur mines of Sicily. Barabbas toils away for twenty years, in an existence akin to a living death, until a twist of fate sends him off to Rome where he trains to fight as a gladiator in the Coliseum. In Rome, Barabbas is somewhat surprised to find that the seeds of Christianity have taken root, even though his guilty conscience has never inspired him to find faith.

The ultimate success of BARABBAS as a movie lies in the solid performance of Anthony Quinn, who brings to life the characterís harsh exterior and inner turmoil. Even when Quinnís character falls silent, one gets the sense of something bubbling just beneath the surface. Vittorio Gassman also turns in a fine performance as Sahak; the Christian slave to whom Barabbas finds himself chained in the sulfur mine. Additionally, BARABBAS features an almost maniacal turn from Jack Palance as Torvald, a gladiator who takes a perverse amount of pleasure from killing. The cast of BARABBAS also includes Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy, Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Harry Andrews, Norman Wooland and Valentina Cortese.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has made BARABBAS available on DVD in a 2.35:1 wide screen presentation that has been enhanced for 16:9 displays. The transfer of BARABBAS is really quite good, with relatively little to remind one that the movie is forty years old. There are very few blemishes on the film element, almost no perceivable grain and maybe one or two missing frames. BARABBAS was produced in Technicolor and Technirama and the sharp, highly detailed image truly shows off the inherent superiority of no longer used wide screen process. Colors are rendered with a fairly normal level of saturation, although the hues through much of the early section of the movie have a decidedly muted quality. However, towards the end of the film, when the story moves to Rome, colors become much more vivid. Brightly colored robes and the crimsons of the Roman Legions uniforms really jump out at the viewer. Flesh tones sometimes take on the appearance of a makeup manís work, but are usually realistic. There are no signs of chroma noise or bleeding during the presentation. Blacks are accurately rendered, contrast is quite good and shadow detail is everything one would expect from film stocks of that era. The dual layer DVD does not betray any noticeable signs of digital compression artifacts.

BARABBAS includes a Dolby Digital 4.0 channel soundtrack, which maintains the filmís old style stereo surround mix. The forward soundstage has that "big, wide" quality one generally associates with multi-channel sound mixes of the fifties and sixties. Surround usage is somewhat limited, but the rear channels do kick in at key moments and are rather effective. Dialogue reproduction is clean and the actorsí voices are completely understandable. There are the expected frequency limitations that affect the overall fidelity of the soundtrack, however, Mario Nascimbeneís wonderful score does manage to sound quite good. Neither background hiss nor audible distortion could be heard when a good level of amplification is applied to the soundtrack. Overall, this is a very good sounding vintage track that should please fans. Subtitles have been provided on the DVD in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a theatrical trailer.

As I stated above, BARABBAS is an under appreciated gem amongst religious epics. Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has given the film first-rate audio and video treatment on DVD, making this a DVD that film buffs will want to own. Anyone only now discovering the grandeur of old style epic filmmaking will also want to check out this fine DVD release.




DVD reviews are Copyright © 2002 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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