Waiting for the Barbarians

Director: Ciro Guerra
Screenplay: J.M. Coetzee (based on his novel)
Stars: Mark Rylance (The Magistrate), Johnny Depp (Colonel Joll), Robert Pattinson (Officer Mandel), Gana Bayarsaikhan (The Girl), Greta Scacchi (Mai), David Dencik (Clerk), Sam Reid (The Lieutenant)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: Italy / U.S.
Waiting for the Barbarians
Waiting for the Barbarians

There is something fundamentally decent about Mark Rylance’s face and voice, a kind of gentleness and sincerity of purpose and lack of pretense that you can’t help but admire. He does much with little, and he always seems to be thinking with quiet dignity, which is perhaps why he is so well cast as the unnamed magistrate at the center of Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation of South African author J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Rylance’s magistrate is a gentle man of reason and peace who nonetheless is a cog in an imperial machine that he gradually comes to first question and then actively oppose (he is a less self-aware version of Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984). It isn’t so much that he grows a conscience, but rather than his conscience is finally forced to deal with the underlying brutality of the culture of which he is not just a part, but an important manager.

One of several novels the Pulitzer Prize-winning Coetzee wrote about apartheid both literally and figuratively, Waiting for the Barbarians dances a thin line between history and allegory, as its depiction of a fictional Empire and the increasingly desperate measures it uses to hold control over a frontier fort at the edge of a vast desert occupied by primitive nomads has so many similarities with 19th-century British colonialism in the Middle East that you will be hard-pressed to remind yourself that you’re not watching historical fiction. All of the details of time and place nod toward the familiar iconography of British colonialism, but the details and names are all purposefully vague, creating a nonexistent time and place for Coetzee’s scathing critique of our need to face down “an enemy,” even if we have to create one.

When the story opens, the magistrate is presiding over a desert village that marks the frontier of his nation’s vast empire. The village exists in relative peace, as the nomadic native peoples who live in the desert just beyond the empire’s fortress walls keep largely to themselves and the village itself appears to be a multicultural hodgepodge of citizens of the empire and locals. The magistrate has learned some of the native language and admires the natives, even as they remain a largely mysterious presence. But, then one day arrives Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), a waxen and grave military official who has been dispatched to investigate rumors of a “barbarian uprising.” Of course, there is no uprising, and the “barbarians” are nothing of the sort. But, the humorless and, as we soon learn, sadistic Joll is intent on finding what he has already determined is there, even if he has to create it through brutal means of torture and intimidation.

The magistrate is rightly horrified by Joll’s actions, and later by those of his subordinate, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), but he continues to dutifully play the role of polite host and enabler. His allegiance to his nation begins to break down when he takes under his wing a young nomadic woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan). Her father was tortured to death by Joll, who has nearly blinded her and broken her legs. The magistrate’s decision to take her back to her people turns out to be his downfall, as he is accused of treason and working with “the enemy” and is stripped of his privileged position within the very system he has come to despise. He thus experiences firsthand the dehumanization, degradation, and torture inflicted upon the so-called “barbarians,” when we see quite plainly that the only barbarians are the men in uniform.

Beautifully shot by British cinematographer Chris Menges, who won Oscars for Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), Waiting for the Barbarians is a handsome production that excels visually even though it doesn’t quite match its aesthetics with corresponding drama. Colombian director Chiro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage), making his English-language debut, displays a firm command of tone and pacing. While the starts out slowly, it grows on you, primarily because the action becomes more and more deplorable and it is difficult—assuming you have any kind of conscience—not be incensed by what is transpiring, even though the narrative machinations of outrage generation are patently clear. The naked injustice of it all is infuriating, and I felt myself giving in to it more and more even as I was consciously aware of the obvious thematic work at play. Because the film mimics the contours of history but is a wholly fictional exercise, everything about it—from character, to setting, to dialogue, to narrative—serves a clear symbolic function. This has an inherent distancing effect, although the film’s emotional core is salvaged by Rylance’s deeply felt performance as the magistrate, who, despite lacking a name, provides the film with a deep well of humanity. He is an imperfect man who has, through his own complacence, helped bring about the very horrors he finds so abhorrent—a meaningful and all too applicable lesson for our current time.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Samuel Goldwyn Films

Overall Rating: (3)

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