Written by J.M. Coetzee (based on his novel) and directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent), Waiting for the Barbarians is set in a rundown but peaceful North African outpost that we presume is part of the British Empire—although that’s never specifically mentioned, presumably on purpose. The specific time period is also a bit hazy, leading me to believe the entire exercise is metaphorical, thus making it less a historical drama and more of a searing condemnation of colonialism and assuming superiority of the conquering (white) people over those native to the land. (Coetzee, South-African born, now lives in Australia. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.)
The impressive cast is lead by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the outpost’s Magistrate, who has clearly been in this location long enough to both fall in love with the place and its people and to be on the verge of retiring. To his surprise and eventual horror, Colonel Joll (a steely, heartless Johnny Depp) arrives with a story of nearby insurgents that he believes threaten border security and might have secretly recruited some of the locals, whom he plans to use “advanced” interrogation tactics with to get information. It takes a while before anyone in the film uses the word “torture,” but Joll isn’t exactly subtle about what he’s up to. The Magistrate doesn’t believe it and gets no specifics about the nature of the threat or who might be involved, but he is met with Joll’s loyal and truly sadistic right-hand, Mandel (Robert Pattinson), who deflects any attempt by the Magistrate to protect this peaceful, nomadic people.
After Joll’s efforts single-handedly undo years of healthy relations between the colonizers and the locals in a matter of weeks, the Magistrate meets a young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan, who has had smaller roles in such films as Ex Machina and Wonder Woman), whom he believes is homeless. It turns out she was mercilessly tortured by Joll’s forces and left wounded on the street. He takes it upon himself to nurse her back to health (much to the chagrin of his maid, played by the great Greta Scacchi) and becomes very protective of her, promising that when she is well enough, he will return her to her people, who turn out to be the insurgents. It’s clear he hopes this woman will fall in love with him and decide to stay in his company at the outpost, but his being white makes that impossible for many reasons. And this makes the Magistrate understand that even a kind and decent outsider is still an outsider, a realization that effectively breaks him.
Upon his return, the Magistrate is treated like a criminal and a co-conspirator with the enemy, and while he attempts to explain his actions, he also doesn’t care where he stands in the eyes of these terrible men. While Waiting for the Barbarians pits the Magistrate against Colonel Joll as polar opposites of this oppressive empire, in the eyes of the locals, they are all the same, and before long, even we begin to see it that way (and are embarrassed that we didn’t from the outset). For fans of the current Netflix actioner The Old Guard, the actor who plays that film’s villain Merrick, Harry Melling, is also on hand here as a garrison soldier who attempts to help the Magistrate when he can but isn’t willing to betray his position to do so.
The film is beautifully shot and composed by legendary British cinematographer Chris Menges (who won Oscars for both The Mission and The Killing Fields), and I particularly loved the way he shoots Depp and Pattinson as if they are murderous statues. They’re dressed impeccably in their dress uniforms, as if that makes their actions and attitudes less horrific. Waiting for the Barbarians is saved in many ways by Rylance’s reserved and deeply heartfelt performance, which gives way to layer upon layer of gradually deeper heartbreak as the story moves forward. We’re there with him in spirit, even if we don’t think he belongs in this part of the world, at least not as any type of leader. The film is a thought-provoking and stirring work that parallels a great number of events throughout the world over time—from the British Empire to the way the United States used torture during the Iraq War. It spares no one (including us) for the simple reason that no one really deserves to be spared. Take a chance on this one, and I believe you’d be unexpectedly moved.
The film is available now as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa program.
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