Barabbas: TV Review

Barabbas Reelz Trailer Screengrab - H 2013

Barabbas Reelz Trailer Screengrab - H 2013

A worthy watch that meditates on the mysteries of faith.

The Reelz miniseries, with a standout performance from Billy Zane, manages to be a more interesting recounting of the Resurrection story than Mark Burnett's stilted "The Bible."

It's the Easter season, which always means it's time for a few Bible-centric specials to sprout up looking to capitalize on it. However, Reelz's two-part miniseries Barabbas is a rare refreshing take. Based on the 1950 Nobel Prize-winning novel by Swedish author Par Lagerkvist, it follows the story of Barabbas, the man the Bible says was spared by the crowds under Pontius Pilate's watch, sending Jesus Christ to the cross instead. Reelz, a more obscure channel that has recently been home to miniseries including The Kennedys, is looking to expand its programming from other networks' reruns to its own original series; with Barabbas, it seems Reelz is on the right track. 

The novel has been adapted before: In a well-received 1961 version directed by Richard Flesicher and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the story was styled as a Roman epic. This time, director Roger Young (who has a number of biblical films in his résumé) makes the story more of a meditation on faith. The story begins where most Easter stories do -- the crucifixion of Jesus -- but continues on past the Resurrection to the persecution of Jesus' followers, focusing primarily on one man's journey to reconcile his skeptical and violent nature with a desire for understanding the love and peace that Jesus' message brings to those around him, even in the face of death.

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Barabbas was known in his time as a notorious criminal and an insurgent against the Roman occupation, and Billy Zane does a fantastic job (that only occasionally goes over the border of hammy) of making him a curiously charismatic rogue. Zane's Barabbas is talented and conflicted, a gruff but personable anti-hero. Skeptical of the idea that Jesus truly is the Messiah, Barabbas is confronted at every angle by an ever-growing core of believers whom he dismisses, while simultaneously becoming obsessed with their devotion.

Barabbas should be complimented for the fact that it does a better and more engaging job of exploring faith than History's current miniseries The Bible, which became bogged down with its own (largely underserved) importance. Another triumph for Barabbas is the fact that Jesus isn't a lofty hunk -- though he only makes cameo appearances, Marco Foschi is perfectly cast as a plain man who seems, for once, human in his portrayal, making this incarnation of Jesus one who is more genuinely affecting than most.

The real story, though, is less about Barabbas' interactions with Jesus, which are rare (Barabbas mostly observes him from a distance), and more about the lifelong struggle between Barabbas and Pontius Pilate (Filippo Nigro), whose wife Claudia (Anna Valle) has become a follower of Christ. Pilate's loyalties are always with Rome, but Nigro gives a nuanced portrayal of yet another conflicted man at the heart of the series, who doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus but also didn't think he should have been condemned to death (and certainly not in the place of Barabbas, who he considered to be a much greater threat).

The women, on the other hand, like Claudia and servant girl Esther (Cristiana Capotondi), loved by Barabbas and a follower of Jesus, are more sure of themselves and their faith. The series features an international cast (mostly from Italy or Tunisia), and while that for once erases the "everyone from the past sounds British" syndrome of works like The Bible by giving some believable accents, some of the actors including Capotondi and Valle never quite find their English tone, and a lot of the acting can come off as wooden or amateurish. In fact, Barabbas' first hour can seem rather clunky -- overall, it's not the sleekest of productions -- but once it settles down, it becomes sincerely engaging.

Reelz's version of the Barabbas story tweaks its telling from that of the novel or the 1961 film, mostly in the timing of Barabbas' eventual determination of faith, but the miniseries manages to be both thought-provoking and at times emotional, doing well at illustrating common skepticisms of Christianity while also showing Barabbas' own transformation. For those looking for an Easter story that focuses more on the sinners looking for acceptance and redemption (with whom Jesus spent a great deal of his time), Barabbas is well worth the watch. It's far from perfect, but as it reminds us, that doesn't have to mean condemnation.