Waiting for the Barbarians

A local magistrate reevaluates his loyalty to his nation

Adapting his novel, South African writer J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is the first English language film from director Ciro Guerra. Very much at home with the native plights and themes of colonialism from his previous two films Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage, Guerra embraces the story of a nameless magistrate (Mark Rylance) who works for a nameless Empire gathering sand on a desert frontier settlement.

A vague colonialist regime pits itself against the ‘barbarians’ — a mysterious nomadic tribe who dwell past the borders — where the magistrate seems happy enough tending to his paperwork and pottering about in the dunes, beckoning an early retirement. He’s like Bilbo Baggins avoiding any conflict or hint of adventure, until he begins to witness the real barbarity upon the arrival of the sinister and sadistic Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp).

This is an earnest film, its best qualities delivered by the cast and their performances. While Depp is sleepwalking behind his sunglasses, it is Rylance who remains the linchpin throughout — few actors remain as compassionate — and it is his humanity that remains crucial to the plot. We see everything through his eyes: captured nomads rotting in jails, their wounds wet and raw, and it seems the magistrate is the only one who recognises their pain. Yet, his pleas for some semblance of humanity are wasted — his one good deed in returning a young girl to her tribe becomes a crime in itself. This white saviour is almost Christ-like amongst the baying Romans who only want to crucify him.

Once we witness the magistrate’s flagellation at the hands of the malevolent Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson in another unexpected role) we see the subtle craft in how Rylance reacts to a situation, from further torture, to ridicule and beyond. This man with no name refuses to be broken and stands tall even when he is carrying the white barbarity square on his shoulders.

One cannot help but think of David Lean whenever a character travels through the desert, yet, for the most part — despite the echoes of the open space beyond the walls of the settlement and the magistrate’s brief journey across the sands — the story remains a contained one. The magistrate’s quarters are his true abode, reflecting his character and thoughtful nature as he takes great care in those finer details of life. This is a thoughtful man – but also a man of action and integrity.

Despite leading you to believe this is a sweeping journey and epic tale, Waiting for the Barbarians is more of a self-contained (even microcosmic) tale about the fall of an Empire, closer to a stage play than true cinema. But despite the underlining themes the film struggles with its pace, almost losing a wonderful performance that, in more confident hands, would have delivered a more worthwhile experience.

Waiting for the Barbarians is available on digital download from September 7.


Updated: Sep 07, 2020

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