Just in time for the Easter season, Reelz Channel offers up a ham-handed, hammily acted mini-series of mostly dubious Biblical provenance. Given that our tolerance for corny, overproduced, excessively long Biblical epics is at a seasonal high, though, perhaps some of us are in the mood for a little ham.
Barabbas is a two-night event, loosely inspired by Pär Lagerkvist’s novel of the same name (and the 1961 movie version starring Anthony Quinn). Like most tales contained within its covers, the Bible doesn’t offers us a whole lot on Barabbas. He was a thief who was pardoned by the Jewish crowd on Passover, thereby condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion. That’s all we’ve really got. Barabbas doesn’t waste any time. Within the first three minutes, our surly anti-hero (played by Titanic’s Billy Zane) has met Jesus and been pardoned. That still leaves a good four hours plus to fool around with. The first night of Barabbas sends us on a flashback, showing what got Barabbas standing trial next to Jesus in the first place.
Zane (basically the only non-Italian, non-dubbed member of the cast) plays his role in a manner that can be best described as “flippant.” (His response to a sincere request to declare Jesus the True Messiah as he mounts the Stations of the Cross: “Shut up!”) Looking at events over the past three years of his life, we realize our boy Barabbas is basically a selfish thief who spends his days drinking, stealing things, hanging out in brothels and yelling at people. Every 20 minutes or so, however, he has a run-in with this Jesus guy (Marco Foschi in full-on hippie mode). It’s like the New Testament’s greatest hits around here: Barabbas robs the wedding in Galilee, he stumbles across the resurrection of Lazarus, he gets hired by the Zealots, his girlfriend Ester (Cristiana Capotondi) becomes Jesus’ housemaid and befriends Pontius Pilate’s wife (Anna Valle).
Shot in Tunisia on a meager budget, Barabbas tries to offer enough bloodshed and historical action to attract the non-religious crowd. The sets and costumes—all mud huts and sackcloth—are extensive. Unfortunately, the handful of digital effects employed here are glaringly cheap (one crucial, digitized spot of blood, for example, sticks out like a sore thumb). Despite a few rousing sequences like the one in which Barabbas and the Zealots pretend to be gladiators in order to rob a rich Roman, Starz’ “Spartacus” and History’s “Vikings” have nothing to worry about. Christian viewers not turned off by the swordplay and frequent talk about prostitutes can easily entertain themselves playing “spot the Biblical passage,” as Barabbas avails itself of as much New Testament material as possible.
Barabbas is no substitute for the gold lamé grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. And it lacks the po-faced sincerity of History Channel’s “The Bible.” But if you’ve still got a hankering for some Bible stories this Easter, Barabbas is ready to steal a couple of nights of your time.