WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2019)
Directed by Ciro Guerra
On Digital Download from 7th September 2020
A fair and honest Magistrate overseeing a distant outpost territory in the desert frontier is visited by the cruel, colonial police Colonel Joll who is driven to find answers about the Barbarians in the area. Disgusted by Joll’s torturous techniques and obsession with the nomads being barbarians, the magistrate is faced with a dilemma: to be loyal to the Empire or to do what he knows is right in his heart.
Written for the screen by the author of the novel, J.M. Coetzee, WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is a political drama set in an unnamed desert land and centred around the individuals working for an unnamed colonial empire. Whilst the film looks to be set in the East somewhere, potentially Kazakhstan bordering on Mongolia, the story could be applied to any oppressed nation where foreigners have entered the land looking to colonise it and treat the disgruntled indigenous people as enemies they must eradicate. It’s been like that for centuries and in all likelihood, always will.
The film, which is split into four chapters, opens with the character of the Magistrate. Played by Sir Mark Rylance, the Magistrate seems be an approachable man, who runs his territory like a father would rather than a power-hungry dictator. He enforces the rules bestowed upon him but does so in an understanding way as in which to help the community rather than to fight it. The people of the territory appear to happy living under the magistrate’s watchful eye and his own staff seem quite keen on him too. His friendly demeanour and soft approach to his work (he hardly ever raises his voice) doesn’t really suit the role he finds himself in and it seems his fair nature and conscience will come to be his downfall when he’s face-to-face with the colonial empire he works for and its brutal police enforcers.
The colonial police working for the Empire seem to have a mission to prevent the Barbarian uprising. Leading the investigation is Colonel Joll, played by Johnny Depp with a chilling disposition. Hiding his eyes behind a pair of peculiar oval sunglasses, Joll’s stony, cold, expressionless manner make him a fearsome enemy. The way he describes his method of interrogation as patience and pressure, in such a calm way, only makes the subsequent revelation of his actions more horrifying, even though the torture is dealt off-screen. Depp’s character is a stark contrast to Mark Rylance’s kindly, warm Magistrate who seems to care very much about his community; a place where crimes seem no bigger than petty squabbles, like the dispute about a theft of a pig. To say that Joll’s presence at the outpost isn’t appreciated by the Magistrate is an understatement, with him hoping that Joll is on his way sooner rather than later.
After Joll leaves the outpost, the Magistrate finds one of his victims; a young woman. The Magistrate feels guilt over what he has allowed to go on under his roof, even though he was unaware at the time, and tries to repent by helping her and giving her a place to sleep. The Magistrate clearly cares for the girl but despite his best efforts, this doesn’t change the fact of what happened to her and she requests to be taken back to her people. The Magistrate doesn’t think twice and does as she asks, but, in the act of carrying out her request, he breaks his allegiance to the Empire which leaves him in a lot of bother, not just with Colonel Joll but his sadistic second-in-command, Officer Mandel, played by Robert Pattinson. By taking in the girl and helping her out, a girl that is seen to be a barbarian, the magistrate ostracises himself from his community, his officers and that of the police force. He is the only one who shows true humanity and sees the corrupt and evil nature of those around him as what is wrong with the world.
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is a real slow burn of a movie. The story never really has a driving momentum to keep you fully engaged but the cinematic shots of the desert community and landscape will capture your interest into the world that the Magistrate has surrounded himself in.
Mark Rylance steals the show in a film which he essentially carries from start to finish. He completely sold the movie for me and even though Depp and Pattinson’s minor characters played their part, it is Rylance who’s seemingly effortless performance of the Magistrate is what will keep viewers watching to the end.
The title of the film can be taken in two different ways. For me, the Barbarians of the story aren’t the ones that Joll describes, but are in fact Joll and his fellow police officers. You could even extend that to everyone working for the Empire for they have moved into the area and are looking to take over by any means necessary. The “barbarians” as described by the Empire are actually nomads and indigenous people who are rightly troubled and infuriated by the foreigners who’ve invaded their lands and way of life. As one tries to snuff out the other, things will surely come to a head but who’s going to lose theirs?
Whilst this story shows a lot of heart from Rylance’s character, there’s still not enough to sink your teeth into to make this a gripping movie. Even Depp’s and Pattinson’s performances seem a little restricted and therefore the clash between them and the magistrate never quite seems to have the full dramatic impact I was looking for. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully shot film with a stellar performance from the lead but those looking for a political drama with a punch may be left a little dissatisfied.