You should know that Waiting for the Barbarians (Waiting For The Barbarians) is an interesting movie about colonialism and the moral questions it raises. But it simmers. The Colombian director Ciro Guerra heads this courageous adaptation of the novel by JM Coetzee (with a script written by the same author) accompanied by Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert pattinson and the Mongolian actress Gana Bayarsaikhan.
Waiting for the Barbarians It is told in four chapters: Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn. We begin in summer, with a dazzling picture of a desert landscape and snow-capped mountains in the distance.
This is when we meet “the magistrate” played by an epic Mark Rylance, serving a nameless Empire at an undefined time on the border of a nameless country. This leader of the small military stronghold is a humble, kind, non-violent and generous man, the last one you would associate with common military practices and much less with the concepts of colonialism. In his spare time, he explores his anthropological and archaeological side, collecting objects and relics from bygone eras, such as an old version of a baby shoe, which he handles with as much delicacy as the parents of the newborn surely did. The magistrate physically embodies a hermit. The natives of those lands appreciate him and he respects and recognizes them as valuable human beings.
These natives or barbarians, are the main objective of Colonel Joll (a sadist Johnny Depp), an extremely sinister representative of the Empire who appears one day to investigate rumors of a possible insurrection. Pain is the truth. Everything else is subject to doubt “Joll says coldly and ambiguously to the puzzled magistrate about the reason for his arrival. You will learn quickly and ironically that truth is pain.
The Colonel soon gets to work, privately interrogating two (presumed innocent) inmates of a misdemeanor and through the use of violent torture he obtains the truth he desires: The tribes are arming themselves against the Empire and he will have to go in search of more truth. This is where everything quickly escalates to real war crimes. A powerful snowball that the magistrate, despite his horror at the military’s actions, cannot stop.
Waiting for the Barbarians it is essentially a thought experiment on colonial morality. Obviously, the invaders are actually the barbarians. What is in question is whether a good man can exist within the invading system. Discussions in the film revolve around whether empires must constantly conquer or whether they must be benevolent and temporary. Do people deserve options, or do they deserve to be commanded by those who consider themselves superior? Waiting for the Barbarians is quiet, slow, and very novel. There is a lot of talk. However, the hypothetical empire is represented with an impressive hodgepodge of costume and production design.
Coetzee’s allegorical novel reflects on themes of power, war, torture, the evils of colonialism, and the need for humans to demonize others in order to subjugate them. Many have drawn parallels to our modern world. Guerra himself says that history, which at first seemed from another era, “Somehow it became a story about our present time”.
A novel like Coetzee’s invites readers to fill in the blanks. However on a screen, we tend to want more specificity. The result, along with an overly languid pacing, is a film that is intermittently fascinating and always interesting, but less powerful than it could have been, despite the beautiful cinematography of Chris Menges.
The main weak point of Waiting for the Barbarians is to have promoted the film with Depp and Patinson ahead. Depp is terrifying as we have rarely seen him and despite not being able to see his eyes thanks to steampunk goggles, he gives an impressive physical performance, especially in his last participation. On the other hand, Pattinson steals the few scenes in which he participates. But that’s the problem, the first appears a few minutes at the beginning and Pattinson only at the end, causing in the audience a feeling of waiting for Pattinson, instead of waiting for the barbarians.
The real protagonist is the magistrate of Rylance, who fortunately has many of the best dialogues, phrases that stay etched in the mind, like this: “We have no enemies that I know of. Unless we ourselves are the enemy “.