Issue 68 (2020)

Evgenii Emelin: Barabbas (Varavva, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2020

varavvaThere have been movies made about Jesus Christ for as long as movies have been made. The Christian origin story provided early filmmakers, who, like Christ, ran up against charges of cultural blasphemy, a historical anchor by which to legitimize their new medium. An all-too-obvious yet underappreciated fact about early filmgoers (and makers)—part-in-parcel with their Western European prejudices and sensibilities—was their Christian faith. For example, George Méliès, a French magician turned moviemaker, harnessed the Gospel of Mark in 1899, specifically the passage of Jesus walking on water, to experiment with his brand of cinematic illusionism.[1] Full of miracles, executions, centurions, and resurrections, Jesus’s biography allowed directors to combine the cheap thrills and “attractions” of early silent cinema with more long-form narrative content. The cast of characters embodied by Christ alone: savior, king, prophet, revolutionary, holy fool, conjurer, priest, liberator, father, and son, naturally attracted storytellers. Indeed, one of the first feature length films (with a runtime of forty minutes) was dedicated to Jesus’s life on Earth, Pathé’s View et Passion du Christ (1903). This mixture of magic and history, entertainment and salvation, has fueled a veritable genre of “passion cinema” with entries from Scorsese, Pasolini, and Gibson, while Christ has been played by the likes of H. B. Warner, William Dafoe, and Joaquin Phoenix. The question before any new passion film is thus what does it contribute to this tradition?

varavva Regrettably, Evgenii Emelin’s debut Barabbas (Varavva, 2018) adds little to the canon. The film, inspired by Marie Corelli’s 1893 eponymous novel, retells the story of Christ’s crucifixion through the eyes of Barabbas, a local criminal in Jerusalem whose life was spared by Pontius Pilate in exchange for Christ’s. Whatever poetic license Emelin generated for himself by estranging Christ’s death through an untraditional perspective is dashed by his literalist interpretation of biblical events. The film begins with Barabbas eavesdropping on a conversation between two men discussing their illicit affairs. Barabbas then bursts out of the shadows and murders the one who is (as is assumed) sleeping with his love interest. Emelin’s passion film thus begins with a crime of passion. It’s this soap-opera spin on the crucifixion story that seems to be Emelin’s main intervention into the passion cinema tradition. While other filmmakers, such as Gibson in The Passion of the Christ (2004), have extrapolated the violent nature of Barabbas as alluded to by the Gospels to portray him as a kind of savage (even Barabbas’s name evocatively conjures up the word “barbarous”), Emelin redeems his hero’s biography by turning it into a pseudo-love story. Barabbas is seen here as a sympathetic, if imperfect, character: a victim of his own carnal passions.

varavvaWhat’s more, audiences shouldn’t be surprised if they mistake Barabbas for Jesus himself. Barabbas’s shoulder-length hair, bearded face, and pale complexion align him with Renaissance depictions of the Christ figure. Indeed, Jesus Christ is rarely even given a frontal view in Barabbas; we’re largely denied access to his face (except during the crucifixion scene, which Emelin presents without the body horror of Gibson’s Passion). Emelin goes to lengths not to emphasize Christ’s physical difference with Barabbas. One early shot even shows both men with their backs turned to the camera, making it almost impossible to distinguish who is who. Each man is put on equal standing. Emelin suggests that all humans, even someone as wayward as Barabbas, are made in God’s likeness, deserving of compassion. Emelin riffs on the fact that some ancient versions of the Gospels use Barabbas’s full name, “Jesus Barabbas,” thereby directly linking him to Christ. There’s more to Barabbas than is assumed; he’s hardly a villain in this film.

varavva Gradually, in a kind of murder-mystery plot, Emelin reveals that Barabbas’s victim was a high priest appointed by Pontius Pilate, the then Roman governor of Judea serving under Emperor Tiberius in the early 1st-century. For his crime, Barabbas faces certain death by crucifixion. Yet his trial serendipitously falls on Passover, an occasion that, per Old Testament convention, allows Pilate to commute one prisoner’s sentence based on popular acclaim. The crowd, so the Gospels go, demands that Barabbas be set free, while Jesus be executed for proclaiming himself as “King of the Jews.” Wracked by guilt (think Raskolnikov), Barabbas then wanders around Jerusalem in search of redemption. He begs Mary and Joseph for forgiveness and bears witness to Christ’s resurrection. Emelin’s film is, in fact, more about Jesus of Nazareth than it is its title character. It unspools an apocryphal biography of Barabbas only to relay a timeworn story of a sinner—a killer and an adulterer—who redeems his sordid life by turning to Christ. Barabbas here is portrayed as Jesus’s 13th apostle. Emelin may as well have titled his movie The Gospel According to Barabbas.

The great irony of Barabbas, then, despite spinning an alternative history, is how conventional it is. It takes no risks and ruffles no feathers of the pious; it’s a boring movie. Like most passion films, Barabbas suffers most from what Peter Malone in his book Screen Jesus calls filmmakers’ “fundamentalist interpretation of scripture” (Malone 2012, 1-2). Barring a few notable exceptions, such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), the usual creativity directors bring to all other stories, is absent when it comes to screening Christ. It’s as if an underlying but pervasive deference to Christian mores inhibits moviemakers from straying too far from their source text, lest they be charged as historical or spiritual “revisionists.” Yet a little revisionism would have gone a long way for Emelin.

Barabbas maps a clichéd account of the events surrounding Jesus’s death that’s more interested in proselytizing its viewers than creatively interrogating the Christ figure. Pasolini, for example, inspired by his own experiences in the Marxist underground, wanted to imbue Jesus with a grittier look as a militant, desert revolutionary. For his part, Emelin largely hews to commonplace portrayals of Christ and his disciples, who have now embraced Barabbas as one of their own. Emelin even admitted as much: “I wanted to tell audiences that everything changes and becomes meaningful when a person gains faith. The film shows the hero’s path from murderer to a Christian … We discuss the eternal theme of choosing a life path.” (Ostasheva 2019). Barabbas is a sword-and-sandal parable that confirms the hesitancies of spectators, especially the nonreligious, in engaging passion cinema at all. There’s no word from on high that Jesus films must evangelize, but so many do nothing but that—the rampant anti-Semitism of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ jumps to mind. These are movies that often find their audiences in the already converted; they preach to the choir.

varavva The faith-based politics of neo-traditionalism as propagated by the Putin regime is, indeed, what inspired Emelin, a middle-aged man with no background in filmmaking, to produce Barabbas in the first place. The film selects its own audience: the politically religious and religiously political. It’s no wonder that Pontius Pilate—a role played by the dashing blonde-haired stage actor Konstantin Samoukov—channels Vladimir Putin himself. Far from a figure of supernatural evil or flinty indifference as portrayed in most Western sources, the Pontius Pilate of Barabbas is a stern but fair figure: deeply worried about justice, receptive to the people’s needs, and sensitive to balancing the interests of privileged and pushy elites. Emelin’s Pilate is less informed by the humanized, confused, and dog-loving Pilate of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, of which Emelin is surely familiar, than he is the political realities of contemporary Russia. The high priests of Barabbas are a subtle caricature of Russian oligarchs, while Pilate stakes his legitimacy on the narod.

The guilt of Christ’s crucifixion in Barabbas is thus laid at the feet of the hollering masses, who must be pacified by the steady hand of their judicious leader. It’s a crime of unruly (inevitably Jewish) mob rule, i.e., the very sort of specter peddled by Putin’s acolytes to intimidate potential defectors, whose logic goes something like this: don’t think what things could be like without Putin, but what they would be like, a return to the chaos of the 1990s. Emelin telegraphs an image of what modern Russia would allegedly look like without its Pilate: anarchic and un-Orthodox, even bloodthirsty. That Pilate reluctantly sets Barabbas free in exchange for Christ, a rough-and-tough criminal for a potential future domestic rival, is also not without political allegory.

varavvaThe set location of Barabbas, in this light, acquires particular resonance. It’s filmed almost entirely in Crimea, which Emelin continually spotlights in landscape shots of mountains, seas, and sunsets that evoke ancient Palestine. Crimea is here framed as the Holy Land. These vistas, which could very well be found as promotional advertisements in a travel agent’s brochure, are the most memorable part of Barabbas. Since Crimea’s annexation in 2014, Putin has made huge investments into the peninsula, with a focus on tourism, to cement its place in the Russian Federation (Anon. 2019). This film about Christ’s resurrection in the 1st century is, ironically, a product of 21st-century geopolitics. Barabbas creates an impression that Christ walked on the Black Sea, not the Sea of Galilee. The film consecrates Crimea onscreen, thus advancing the cause of the state by imbuing Russian irredentism with a kind of sacredness. This Russified crucifixion story, in short, adds a splash of Putinism into the canon of passion cinema. A third soap-opera, a third Christian propaganda, and a third political propaganda—Emelin’s debut is no revelation.


1] This Méliès short has been lost unfortunately.

Raymond De Luca
Harvard University

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Works Cited

Anon. 2019. “Russia Approves $4.7 Bln Investment for Crimean Infrastructure and Tourism.” The Moscow Times 4 February.

Malone, Peter. 2012. Screen Jesus: Portrayals of Christ in Television and Film. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Ostasheva, Dar’ia. 2019. “Evgenii Emelin: ‘Chudesa soporvozhdali nas vo vremia raboty nad fil’mom Varavva’.” Interview with Evgenii Emelin. ProfiCinema 20 February.

Barabbas, Russia, 2019
Color, 155 min.
Director: Evgenii Emelin
Screenplay: Evgenii Emelin
DoP: Andrei Deineko
Music: Aleksandr Kendysh, Oleg Saksonov, Aleksandr Kniazev, Kirill Belorussov  
Cast: Pavel Krainov, Regina Khakimova, Zalim Mirzoev, Aleksandr Laptii, Elena Podkaminskaia, Konstantin Samoukov, Sergei Sanaev, Al’bert Filozov, Vitalii Maksimenko, Svetlana Agafoshina  
Producer: Evgenii Emelin, Anton Kirillov
Production: Artvorks Film

Evgenii Emelin: Barabbas (Varavva, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2020

Updated: 2020