"Barbarosa" is the latest exceptional movie that appears destined to be brushed off by a distributor--Universal in this case--unable or unwilling to provide it with adequate promotion. Nevertheless, finding this vivid, haunting new Western, which still may be lingering at a handful of area theaters, should be worth the inconvenience.
Director Fred Schepisi is one of the key figures of the Australian movie resurgence of the '70s. His first feature, "The Devil's Playground," made in 1975, a wonderful autobiographical memoir about the students and faculty at a Catholic boys' school, was imported early this year. His second feature, the compelling interracial tragedy "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," set on the Australian frontier at the turn of the century, received American distribution in 1980, after only a two-year lag.
Schepisi, a second-generation Australian of Northern Italian parentage, is now working in the United States. His third feature, "Barbarosa" was written and coproduced by William Witliff, a native Texan who contributed to the script of "The Black Stallion" and originated the script of Jack Fisk's "Raggedy Man."
Americans tend to find Australians oddly familiar and simpatico--like Texans with British accents--so the idea of a talented Australian filmmaker interpreting a story set on the Texas frontier wasn't at all outlandish. On the contrary, it sounded like a potentially rewarding cross-fertilization project, especially in light of Schepisi's previous work.
Schepisi brought several crew members with him to the United States, notably the splendid cinematographer Ian Baker, and they sustain a pictorial scheme, designed to establish intense physical intimacy with the actors along with an awesome appreciation of the landscape they inhabit. The terrain of "Barbarosa," shot principally on location in the Big Bend National Forest, augmented by some exteriors near Fredericksburg, Va., imposes itself with a stark beauty that recalls the brooding, expressive sense of background achieved in "Jimmie Blacksmith."
The opening sequence sets a thematic pattern by showing Gary Busey physically tormented within a stretch of disarmingly scenic wilderness--lost and struggling to navigate his way through a dense thicket, he's hemmed in and slashed by the briars. The incisive film editing gives each little cut and abrasion a teeth-gnashing sharpness, and one fleeting virtuoso close-up of a drop of blood drooping from a thorn could serve as an abstract summation of the movie.
Busey is soon revealed to be a fugitive farm boy named Karl, on the run because of some mysterious but deadly family quarrel which led him to take the life of his brother-in-law, probably in self-defense. His father-in-law, a stiff-necked Dutchman played by George Voskovec, has ordered two remaining sons to exact revenge on Karl.
Lost in the wilderness, Karl is saved on two separate occasions by chance encounters with a solitary, sarcastic, lightning-fast, graybearded geezer known as Barbarosa, played by Willie Nelson. Perilous circumstances force them into a fugitive companionship in which Karl's status evolves from greenhorn sidekick into legendary successor. As the old outlaw and the young outlaw grow closer, it becomes apparent that the blood feud Karl was drawn into threatens to duplicate the fantastic saga of Barbarosa, who has been hunted for 30 years by members of the Mexican family he married into and still hopes to reconcile with, if only his revenge-crazed father-in-law, Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland in a superb character performance), could be persuaded to listen to reason and call off the vendetta.
Unfortunately, that vendetta remains Don Braulio's only purpose in life. Over the years a demonic local folklore has been created around the exploits of the notorious, hated son-in-law Barbarosa, who continues to circle and harass the hacienda, paying furtive, nocturnal romantic calls on his wife, Josephina (Isela Vega), and eluding or killing the family assassins sworn to missions of revenge by his bloodthirsty father-in-law.
Not an enviable destiny, obviously, but as Barbarosa dryly remarks, "It ain't a bad trade if you don't have anyone." The peculiar expressive triumph of the movie is to create a Western environment, physically and emotionally, in which this insane, appalling destiny does indeed look inescapable. Much as they desire it, Barbarosa and Karl have been forced beyond reconciliation with their inflamed in-laws. As outlaws, all that remains to sustain them is the stubborn personal honor associated with playing out the unlucky hand or assuming the notorious role that fate seems intent on dealing or assigning.
Eventually, "Barbarosa" is bound to take its rightful place among the superior Westerns. It makes much more sense to think of it as a worthy, original companion piece to, say, Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" than as a "new movie." Since the genre is out of fashion, even the movie's spareness may be perceived as a liability: Schepisi not only elects to work intuitively and conscientiously in an ailing tradition but also prefers to keep the scale and meanings of his Western fable modest. "Barbarosa" suggests that as long as Fred Schepisi keeps working, it's only a matter of time before he makes a fine movie that also makes a resounding popular impact.