Tag Archives: Pär Lagerkvist

Barabbas, book and movie

I think that Barabbas, Swedish Nobel Prize-winner’s 1950 novel, was his best known work even before it was the basis for a Biblical epic movie made by Dino Di Laurentis with Anthony Quinn in rhe title role. The book begins with the freed prisoner skulking to watch the crucifixion of the man the crowd chose to be crucified, Jesus called the Christ. Barabbas recognizes one of the two thieves crucified with (besides) Jesus and is struck by the woman who is obviously the mother, filled with sorrow but not crying. The disturber of religious orthodoxy is frail. Barabbas knows he will not last long and is appalled that the Romans superintending the crucifixions offer a sponge dipped in vinegar when Jesus asks for water.


Barabbas is terrified by the mid-day dark an earthquake that was not noticed by those who hang out in his favorite tavern. He sounds out some believers in the crucified one and is puzzled by their faith that he will be resurrected. He befriends a young believer with a harelip who gets herself stoned for preach the Christian heresy, knifes the man who cast the first stone, and later removes the girl’s body from the pit where she was killed.

It’s not clear to me in the novel how Barabbas is condemned to Roman sulfur mines from which no one emerges alive. His weaker partner (they are chained together), Sahak is a Christian, eager to hear from someone who saw the Savior. They are reassigned to pull plows like oxen, and eventually chosen by the Roman governor(‘s wife) to accompany him into retirement in Rome.

Sahak refuses to renounce his god and is crucified. Barabbas watches again. He tracks down Christians meeting in catacombs and eagerly participates in Nero’s burning of Rome. That is blamed on Christians. The nonbeliever Barabbas is the only one who takes enthusiastic part. The Apostle Peter explains to him why Christians do not make war in the name of their religion, and Barabbas is crucified with many Christians. He is the slowest to die, and, unlike Jesus has no group watching in solidarity.

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I think tat the movie made several improvements on Lagerkvist’s stripped-down prose. First, it shows Pontius Pilate giving the crowd a choice of which condemned prisoner will be release. In a spectacular sequence (which may not be an improvement) it shows Barabbas dragging Sahak (played by Vittorio Gassman) to the surface when an earthquake destroys the sulfur mine. After the same transition through field labor to being part of the retiring governor’s household in Rome, the two are cast into gladiator school. There they are particularly hated by the master (a slave who has risen to training and supervising the other gladiators), Torvald, who is played with full-throttle malice by Jack Palance. Torvald kills Sahak is killed by Torvald (after the executions throw their spears around the required target) for refusing to renounce his god, and in a scene not in the book, Barabbas and a net go against the arrogant and vicious Torvald in a chariot. This is quite an exciting action sequence in which Torvald is outsmarted and eventually dragged around behind his chariot by his frenzied horses.


Nero frees the surprise victor, and Barabbas carries another corpse (Sahak’s) to proper burial.

Barabbas is lost in the catacombs. When he emerges the city is burning. He adds some torches and is crucified in a tableau (as in “Spartacus”). Barabbas wants to believe in the new religion that he only partly understands, but dies a martyr to the faith he would like to have, but doesn’t quite have.

Quinn as the brute intrigued by the man (regarded by Christians as the son of god) is quite good, as is Gassman as the frailer (but not frail) believer with whom Barabbas bonds during twenty year’s brutal mistreatment underground and continues to associate even after they are no longer chained together. Palance was over-the-top but appropriately so, Aldo Tonti’s color photography was notable, and there was some early electronic music in Mario Nascimbene’s score.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

This is a part of a re-examination of one of my adolescent self’s favorite writers, which is also includes The Sibyl (my favorite) and The Dwarf. It is also an example of movie being better than source book. Losing the interior reflections of an unretrospective and unanalytic  character was more than compensated for by big spectacles, including the final crucifixion field.


The malevolent dwarf, narrator of Pär Lagerkvist’s breakout novel

My attempt to revive my adolescent admiration for the novels of Pär Lagerkvist is not going well. I don’t think I read his first international success, Dvärgen, published in Swedish in 1944 (which I don’t think much was making it out of Sweden), first translated into English as The Dwarf after Lagerkvist had won the Nobel Prize in 1951. It presents the diary of a dwarf, Picoline, a bitter misanthrope. Picoline does not hate his master, a philosophical Renaissance-era Italian prince who has brought a Leonardo da Vinci (as if, there could be more than one!) called Bernardo to court. Bernardo tends not to finish things, including a fresco of the Last Supper and a portrait of the princess. He also designs military devices, some of which are built and used in a war with a neighboring principality.


Picoline has some respect for the range and intensity of Bernardo’s interests, but is mortified when Bernardo strips and draws him. Picoline wants to keep his body unseen by others, but does not try to kill Bernardo.

Besides hating human beings in general, especially laughing ones and young lovers (he considers both laughing faces and sex offensively grotesque), Picoline hates other dwarfs. During the war he hunts down and slays the dwarf of the rival prince. He recalls with relish having earlier strangled the other dwarf in his prince’s court.

At a banquet celebrating a peace treaty, Picoline poisons the other prince and some others, missing the prince’s son, who is having puppy love with his prince’s daughter. Later Picoline finds that this adolescent has snuck in and is sleeping with the daughter. He wakes his prince, who goes to his daughter’s room and decapitates her sleeping lover, rather distressing his daughter…

The promiscuous wife of the prince likes Picoline and confesses everything she does to him. He despises her as a trollop, but had nothing to do with her death (unlike those of so many others!). Bernado paints a portrait of the dead princess as a radiant Madonna (this portrait he actually finishes, and it is hung in the cathedral, where it becomes an object of popular veneration). Picoline thinks the first portrait showed the real character of the princess, but does not tell the prince that. The prince decides Picoline was responsible for his death and has him chained in the dungeon (after torture fails to produce any confession).


Picoline is too monochrome a character, devoured by his hatred of most everyone, to provide an interesting sensibility. I find his catalog of contempt for people and other dwarfs tedious. There is no flicker of guilt in him. I guess he represents evil, though not a very interesting evil and one that is, shall we say dwarfed by others active in the world when Lagerkvist was writing the book in neutral Sweden. Is he a vision of Hitler transported to servitude in Renaissance Milan? He craves war and thrives on destruction, but he is not in charge.

The prose is stripped down, consisting of simple syntax declarative sentences, as in other Lagerkvist novels, such as the more engaging The Sibyl. The character and the outrages he perpetrates or imagines seem very heavy-handed to me, though occasionally his excesses seem funny, not just abhorrent. He is SO consumed with misanthropy (he doesn’t consider that dwarfs are human, though hating them just as much or perhaps more). He does not think that dwarfs are at all like children, but in his frantic imagining and incomprehension of adults, there is something childlike about him, in addition to his diminutive stature. He hates what he cannot understand, which includes most human conduct.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray