BARBAROSA FRED SCHEPISES NEW FILM, is a wonderfully subtle and sly exploration of the two basic elements that have always defined the great westerns, land scrape and legend. The vast desert expanses dwarf the figures riding across them, and likewise, the big myths of the West have always swallowed up the real actions of those figures Unfortunately, in recent Westerns both elements have been undermined. The legends have been pulled out of glorious iconic two-dimensionality and reduced to human levels, and the landscape have been deflated from three-dimensional grandeur into a series of all-too-familiar picture postcard images. Although this decline developed from the wariness with which we now approach our national myths, it is, more noticeably, the result of simple surfeit in what is after all a somewhat limited genre.
Given this, it is surprising how fresh and purely elemental a Western Barbarosa is Director Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. The Devil's Playground) is Australian, so instead of being overwhelmed by the burden of a cinematic and cultural past, he strips away the accumulated layers and gets at the core of Western legend. In this respect Barbarosa's strength and vitality recalls the poignant Westerns of another outsider. Sergio Leone, but without their cutting edge of nastiness.
We first see Karl (Gary Busey) a farm-boy, stumbling across the desert clumsily, trying to escape the wrath of his father-in-law, whose son he accidentally killed. There he meets the legendary figure known as Barbarosa (Willie Nelson), who is himself being pursued by his own Mexican in-laws the Zabala family--because of a long standing, yet obscurely motivated vendetta.
But, unlike Karl, Barbarosa assiduously cultivates the enmity with his family; he waits with calm expectancy, almost satisfaction, for each male Zabala to come pursuing him--and they inevitably do--across the vacant plain. Karl witnesses these ritualistic encounters with second generation Zabala men, whose fathers Barbarosa had killed during the past 30 years, during his first meeting with Barbarosa. A gunshot suddenly resounds, and a bullet grazes the unflinching Barbarosa's cheek. Instinctively Barbarosa shoots the young man rushing at him. Afterwards, he gently kisses the face of the dead young man and murmurs in all sincerity. "They're damn good people."
Barbarosa does not remain in the region merely to feed the feud, but rather to feed the myth surrounding the feud. In essence he is only a loner and sometime petty robber preying on squalid little settlements in the region, who takes karlas an apprentice of sorts. The sincere bumbling Karl himself becomes entrenched in the Barbarosa legend, as the "baby gringo," a Sancho Panza to Barbarosa's Quixote.
BARBAROSA IS THUS NOT so much about these two men as about the legend that engulfs them both. Barbarosa, having escaped from the grave of his enemies by playing dead, goes back to the Zabala household. Inside they are already singing songs of his latest exploit, renewing the legend with their soleman incantations to kill him Barbarosa's smile belies his rapt attention, his pleasure at playing the role of mythical phoenix of the desert: in truth he thrives on the menacing proximity of the Zabalas.
While the subject matter may seem grim and violent, the movie's tone is actually quite gentle, because Schepisi and his writer, William D. Witliff, concentrate on the legend itself. The basic human passions of hatred, bloodlust and revenge are really only minor catalysts in the world of Barbarosa, there to fuel the ritual. The legend of Barbarosa is far greater, far more important than Barbarosa's actions, than even Barbarosa himself, as he has chosen his successor in Karl.
Almost without exception, every scene opens with a breathtaking vista against which the figures can only be discerned with some difficulty. The predominant desert landscape mirrors the legendary themes. Miraculously, Schepisi has made every desert shot so fresh and grand and has integrated this environment into the plot, rather than using it as a mere backdrop. Numerous close-up shots of the desert zoom in on the gritty textures of the ground and the animal life. Thus, Schepisi places humans somewhere between the solid ground and the expanses, and similarly between their actions and the vast myths surrounding them.
As Barbarosa, Nelson lets his weather-beaten features speak for themselves, like the landscape. Though he delivers his lines effectively and emotionally, he still doesn't so much act as lend his corporeal presence to the film. Though we never learn much about the man, we can still appreciate the legend in full force. Gary Busey, a terribly underrated actor, is equally magnificent in his transition from a clumsily sensitive young man, to a man equaling Barbarosa's legendary stature. The whole film shows a great care and craftsmanship rarely seen nowadays in bigger productions.
One of Barbarosa's best--and most telling--scenes has Barbarosa lying in his grave in a bandit campsite, blood seeping through his shirt from a bullet hole. But as the hard dry earth is almost completely shoveled over him, he shifts, jumps out, and is off again to renew his own myth. Similarly, as the commercial vultures of oblivion have been circling over the Western as a film genre, it too has suddenly shaken off the grave dust, at least provisionally, thanks to Schepisi.