LFF 2019: Waiting for the Barbarians Review
Director Ciro Guerra’s recent rise to arthouse prominence has seen him produce two extraordinary films in Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage, offering a fresh perspective on aspects of Latin American history rarely discussed onscreen. Waiting for the Barbarians continues in a similar vein whilst also marking the first English language release from the Colombian director. Cast wise he also levels up, bringing on board Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson in a story about colonialism, privilege and white guilt.
Guerra’s film is based on South African novelist J. M. Coetzee’s award-winning book of the same name, with the writer also enlisted for screen writing duties. It’s a much straighter arrow than Guerra’s recent efforts and perhaps the elements of the novel that made it so compelling have been lost along the way. Only those who have read the book and seen the film will understand those differences, but based on its own merits, this incarnation of Waiting for the Barbarians lacks the purpose and direction needed to elevate the material.
Exactly where and when this parable of sorts takes place is never made clear. The location looks Middle Eastern (it was shot in Morocco), while those being colonised (referred to by the British as barbarians) are Mongolian. To make it even more confusing, Coetzee’s novel was originally intended as an allegory about Apartheid South Africa. Either way, Guerra trains his focus on a Magistrate (Rylance) who oversees a small fortified town on the border of an invading Empire. The Magistrate has no wish to involve himself in political matters of any kind and rules with a soft hand rather than an iron fist.
He is friendly enough with the locals and refuses to give credence to the supposed threat to their way of life posed by the barbarians (or nomads as he prefers to call them). Rylance maintains the assured, but sympathetic, style we have become accustomed to over the past few years, and makes believable the character of a man whose wilful ignorance eventually leads to chaos. The arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp) and his callous torture methods springs his moral compass to life, but his imperialist privilege is too engrained for it to really make a difference.
Depp is clearly enjoying playing the villainous Colonel who hides his eyes behind small, round sunglasses, strutting through the compound speaking with strategic authority. Those unable to overlook the actor's personal transgressions will believe this role to be an uncomfortably suitable fit, but you can also imagine that Depp himself is revelling in playing up to type. Joll's stay is short, but while present he proceeds to round up and jail a large group of nomads, seeing to it they are brutalised by his men, before departing the town.
When the Magistrate offers support to a young street woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose family suffered at the hands of Joll's men, his actions lead to conflict with his returning superiors - this time led by the equally as unpleasant Mendel (Robert Pattinson in bad form) – and he is forced to face up to the consequences. A potential problem here is that because of the lack of nuance in the script, there’s every chance the film will be read as the Magistrate being the one most deserving of our compassion. While his heart is in the right place, there’s a possessiveness to this actions that are as destructive as Joll's methods. That is no doubt what Guerra wanted to get across, but it's questionable how clearly that can be seen.
The shallowness of the characters we are asked to engage with also make it difficult to find a way in. While this is the best we’ve seen from Depp in some time, his character is brutally one-note, as is Pattinson’s. That leaves it down to Rylance to carry us through the two hours, and despite another strong performance, he’s ultimately let down by the writing. It works well enough to offer a solid opening act, but the pacing soon starts to labour and the film never regains momentum or a sense it seems to know exactly where it is heading.
When a director has scaled the cinematic heights as majestically as Guerra has achieved with his last two films, expectations soar along with it, making the fall back into less successful territory feel more pronounced. That said, his direction is as assured as ever and the work of legendary cinematographer Chris Menges creates some beautiful shot compositions to evoke memories of Lawrence of Arabia. By his own account Guerra has mentioned that the novelistic version of Waiting for the Barbarians has been deemed unfilmable by many, and come the end you might believe he would’ve been better served paying closer attention to those warnings.
Waiting for the Barbarians plays at this year's London Film Festival.
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