Spiritual themes have often been the occasion for the goriest and most violent scenes in movies. It seems that intrinsically good subjects like liberty, chivalry and honor seem to be the best pretexts for really pouring it on. Think of classic movies like Spartacus and Ben-Hur that are blood-drenched and blame the barbarous past for it. The irony of those films was that the Roman crowds whose heartlessness made viewers shudder did not have the best seats in the house. We did. These older pictures from the late 1950′s early 1960′s were disarmingly blatant about the violence. The esthetic was to permit the cunning work of the camera to do close-ups allowing us to watch the torments in privileged intimacy. That basic template still permeates today, even if its mundane and conventional; Under the stands, after the chariot race, we see Messala shivering cruelly as he dies. We watch the face of Jack Palance as he begs the crowd for mercy just before Anthony Quinn, Barrabas, and his sword put an end to his sufferings.
We derive some gratification from this violence, and we are able to congratulate ourselves on our superiority to these frightful pagans. Our own pop culture may seem more “evolved” and in some respects it is, but an underlying need for violence, a vicarious pleasure exists to excite the senses and pacify some more troubling backwoods of the psyche. In these classic period pieces like El Cid or Barrabas we are invited to enjoy the passions of the murderer and the blessings of innocence and enlightenment at the same time. Like a smarmy movie like The Help were we get to enjoy privilege and segregation and civil rights. We can’t lose. No one can lose. All impulses can be gratified at once, and the thing is profitable as well. This can only be called all-purpose spiritual materialism. Here is a phenomenon not restricted to movies; in our public life religious and quasi-religious personalities have concocted dismal mixtures of piety and opportunism. We are always being asked to swallow many a queer dose.
Dino De Laurentiis, who produced Barabbas from the novel by Par Lagerkvist, told people along with director Richard Fleischer, that making the picture greatly affected them spiritually and gave them as artists, unforgettable experiences, like the experience of Barrabas himself after he had witnessed the Crucifixion. Do they really believe this? De Laurentiis makes many bows and obeisances before the creative superiority of Lagerkvist; he bends so hard that you can have orthopedic fears for his back. The intellectual poem as business risk. The same erzatz spirituality that Mel Gibson blathers out, as if he was following Jesus on the stations of the cross, mugging for the cameras, signing autographs and whispering rumors of wandering jew yarns. Its an enterprise not really of high-minded bunk and pious cheating, no evidence of deliberate cheating; there is something extra-ordinarily touching about such evident good faith. Like Laurentiis and later Gibson, there is nothing stark and rudimentary. Their is a particular care to give their souls a better orientation. After all, the idea of an intimate spectacle goes down a little hard even if we have been trained to get down all sorts of stuff and we should be grateful for having our senses deranged and having our sensibilities realigned.
But back to Barrabas. There is not much blood in the book, but there are lakes of blood in the picture, just as in the less “intimate” spectaculars. The extras, hand-picked from the cast of thousands, die horribly. And in addition to all the flowing blood, the producers have added an intimate mine disaster that sets off an intimate series of sulphurous explosions. The slaves stagger, scream as they are burned, are buried alive, or succumb bleeding under fallen beams.
In the matter of sex, the producers of Barrabas have also allowed themselves several liberties. The humble harelipped girl who appears in the novel is transformed into the beautiful Rachel and forced to submit to the rough embrace of Anthony Quinn. Quinn had been on the verge of turning down De Laurentiis for the film, but changed ideas when he learned the script would be by Christopher Fry, a writer who could be trsuted to deliver a great spiritual message to an international public. Well, a picture or two without a beautiful woman or two is hardly imaginable , and this woman when introduced, simply can’t be ignored. Rachel, played by Silvana Mangano is ill used only once and this-as spectaculars, intimate and otherwise go, show remarkable restraint. She is stoned to death in a pit.
But Quinn was onto something. Everything that we are spared in lasciviousness we are given in violence. Like gladiatorial school. That the spectacle of the arena was part of the life and times of ancient Rome is perfectly true. Still, a good many people did manage to stay out of it. Saint Paul, who encountered some of the worst evils of the Empire , did not have to attend the gladiatorial college; perhaps it is nearer the truth that many pictures rich in spiritual content also get in far larger amounts of pain and bloodshed than they require to float the message, unfortunately confirming some of the theses of Harold Bloom on American religion and spirituality being generally removed, or a least several standard deviations of liberty away from the source…