By Beth Widdicombe
Waiting for the Barbarians, an adaptation of the novel by J. M. Coetzee, is the English language directorial debut by Ciro Guerra. The narrative focuses on the decline of an undisclosed Empire, beautifully shot in the desert. Starring Mark Rylance as the retiring Colonial Magistrate, Johnny Depp as the tyrannical Colonel Joll, and Robert Pattinson as the overly sadistic second in command Mendal.
The film is split into four chapters over the duration of a year, symbolizing the passing seasons, the yearly cycle of birth, maturation, decline and ending representative of the recurrent patterns in nature… also a mirroring of time in our world, never more omnipresent than the current period we live in now. Although the location and time remain anonymous throughout, we as the audience get a sense of era and location from the interior, and landscape shots. Many reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia 1962, and ‘The English Patient’ 1996.
Waiting for the Barbarians’ story starts with the Colonial Magistrate (Mark Rylance) cast as the sensitive, steady lead. He plays it softly spoken and his emotions are expressed via small gestures. Only someone with his talent and experience could deliver this delicate role. Located in a far-away outpost of the Empire, he combines managing the daily aspects of the town, with studying local antiquities and artifacts. His life is slow and measured, with little disruption, until the arrival of state security officers. His prior concerns are honoring and understanding the land and indigenous people, so the sudden change in dynamic with the new ominous stark regime is an unwelcome presence.
Colonel Joll, is the head of the police, a cold character with a penchant for torturing the enemy. Depp plays this down, compared to his other roles over the past years, which seems to have him playing mainly caricatures, rather than characters. He arrives with all the pomp and ceremony of the colonial times, the sinister, arrogance and vanity of the personage of that era. His attire does all the talking here, an indicator of his presence – dark Navy uniform with a rather unique pair of glasses. Their black lenses and cross-section symbolize this character’s blindness, his taste for torturous cross-examinations of the innocent people, prove these Colonial officials to be the Fascist barbaric ones.
They are focused on the apparent arrival of the Barbarians, a group of ‘uncivilized’ dangerous invaders. As Colonel Joll and his officers terrorize and imprison more of the locals, the Magistrate moves away from his duties and makes it his mission to question the motives of the officer’s treatment of wrongfully captured prisoners. Amongst these are a nameless indigenous Girl (played by Gana Bayarsaikhan), a tortured vagrant who he brings into his household, much to the concern of his cook, considerately played by Greta Scacchi. More eye symbolism comes into play here as we unfold the story of her blinding under questioning. He soon becomes infatuated with her, washing her feet in a Mary Magdalene/Jesus role reversal, in which, overcome with emotion he passes out in her presence.
Determined to join her people, the ‘Magistrate’ embarks on a journey through the desert to unite her with her people. On his return, he is arrested, his possessions and privileges seized by Mendal. Robert Pattinson seems awkward, aloof and not within the film. Usually, I rate his abilities, (his performance in the Lighthouse, is one of my favorites this year), but he wastes one of the best lines in the film with his withdrawn delivery. Maybe he intended it that way. He is a sadistic and cold officer, hellbent on forcing the new regime. Classed as a deserter and traitor to the Empire, the ‘Magistrate’ is left filthy and homeless, and used as a visual form of deterrent via a humiliating scene in which he is hung in female clothing by a tree.
As time passes, the officers grow bored, still awaiting the arrival…climaxing with a horrific token of symbolism from the Barbarians, that they will not be threatened by their presence.
With this, the officers depart, leaving the ‘Magistrate’ holding the bag, to what we can only assume as the impending arrival of the Barbarians…or not.
The slow unfolding of the story, the expansive wide shots, and Rylance’s sensitive character portrayal are the strongest element of this film. All enhance that we are small insignificant beings in this huge world… yet we cause so much destruction through fear and our obsessive need for ownership. Waiting for the Barbarians is a well thought out retelling of a not so distant past, and sadly current world we still occupy.
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