Waiting For The Barbarians marks Director Ciro Guerra’s English debut and is based on the novel of the same name by J. M. Coetzee.
The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is the amiable face of colonialism, living in peace in an unnamed frontier town of ‘the Empire’ – pottering around with archaeological artefacts.
But the lie that underpins this harmony is sharply exposed when creepy Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) rides into town and starts interrogating the locals, seeking Intel about a coming insurrection.
The Magistrate, disgusted by the actions of his fellow army men, begins his own personal rebellion.
Following Birds of Passage and Embrace of the Serpent, Guerra continues investigating the effects of oppression on indigenous communities – this time exploring the mentality of the oppressors themselves.
I have not read the book, but as a neutral viewer, it essentially begins as a film about two powerful beings and the power-struggle between them.
But as the film progresses, we realise that it is more convoluted.
In fact, the barbarians are metaphoric of the Magistrates’ anger towards the Colonel. However, the ‘barbarian’ has different interpretations. Is it those with power or those without it?
Seeing a group of white, elite men in governmental roles is a harsh reminder of what several communities have endured under previous ’empire’ administrations.
Constantly throughout the film two conflicting perspectives of colonialism.
For instance, the empire addresses themselves as the benefactors, whereas the citizens view them as invaders.
In terms of generic historical allegories, the movie scores on that front.
Whilst there are several references of brutalities, Ciro avoids spending excessive time in showcasing the harshness.
As such, the wide-shots, crisp editing and engaging background score help to enhance the cinematic experience.
At times, the sets, costumes and overall feel of the movie seem quite theatrical, almost like a Shakespeare play… A few dialogues also adapt quite a formal, poetic tone.
Some of the wide shots with two characters exchanging dialogues help in maintaining tension… Especially the scenes featuring Depp and Rylance.
Having said that, the slow-burning pace acts a detergent. The steady feel to the movie, makes us empathise less with it resulting in a lack of engagement.
The saving grace of the film is the performances.
Mark Rylance delivers a sincere act as the righteous and humanitarian magistrate who sympathises with people.
The fact that he has no name adds to the ambiguity of the character. Also, it is refreshing to not see a toxic masculine who is power-crazed and downright evil.
His voice of morality works wonders and definitely rides the film.
The same, however, cannot be said about Johnny Depp‘s character – Colonel Joll. The role is a polar opposite to Rylance’s character and that conflict translates well on screen.
Depp fully owns this character… Which is seen only in places. From his cold persona to his spiteful dialogue delivery, Johnny gives an ominous feel to the role.
That black outfit and cape, zany specs and hat is a foreboding look which will forever be etched into our psyche.
In a brief role, Robert Pattinson is seen as Officer Mandel. Besides a few confrontation scenes here and there, there’s not much for Pattinson to do.
Perhaps Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson can enrich the commercial presence in an arthouse film such as this.
Overall, Waiting for the Barbarians is a decent watch and it can also be emblematic of historical events, especially due to the dual perspectives of the ‘Empire’.
Given the abstract nature of the movie’s concept, Ciro Guerra presents it in a gradual, picturesque manner that definitely proves his craft as a reputed filmmaker.
Though it could’ve been more engaging, the headline performances by Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp will certainly leave an impact.
⭐⭐⭐ (3/5 stars)