Barabbas, which has all the hallmarks of a decadent costume pageant of the Hollywood-on-the-Tiber, runaway-production, Two Weeks in Another Town era, is upon closer examination an inextricable mixture of reactionary and radical elements. The latter include the unorthodox approach to religious subject matter, Nascimbene’s experimental score, and the focus on a coarse, “unlikable protagonist”—a type so much esteemed today—who remains unreconstructed for practically the entire movie.
There's an existential Christian core at the center of this film, but the script's heavy handed approach to "epic" under De Laurentiis smothers it of any of the serious work being done. But Fleischer picks up the entire slack by using the 2.35 framing to his full advantage. The long salt mines sequence is truly something out of a WS Anderson movie with its obsession with the maze of caves, and the final gladiatorial action is quite impressive, thanks to the physicality of it all...
By deferring Barabbas’s certainty and conversion, Lagerkvist turns his story into a parable of humankind struggling with God’s silence. Barabbas is painfully explicit on this point: “Why can’t God make himself plain?” is the leitmotif of his running dialogue with the Christian within him. It is interesting that the essential religious conviction of Lagerkvist’s story is what makes it possible for such a daring question to be posed within the prevailing ideology of the commercial film industry.