Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians (film) - Wikipedia

Humanity is on full display in Ciro Guerra’s newest feature. When dealing with humanity there are many facets and nuance. When one is talking about morality, there is a certain tone and story line that must be followed. If one is talking about spirituality or the subconscious there are more rules and subtext. What Ciro is bringing to the conversation is a mingling of all that humanity has to offer, both the good and the irredeemable. You might think that is a lot to show in a single movie, and you are right. There are moments of brilliance – mostly thanks to the ever-reliable Mark Rylance – but this frequently paint by numbers script pushes tropes and stereotypes to the forefront and does not leave enough room for tone.

This may be compounded by the fact that this is Ciro’s first feature in which he was not also a writer. That responsibility lay upon J.M. Coetzee who also wrote the novel. This is Coetzee’s first screenplay credit, but the Nobel winning author certainly knows what he is doing. I’m wondering if that one-two punch is doing a disservice to the films overall integrity.

The story itself centers on the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) of a distant outpost. The country the Magistrate works for and the country that houses the “distant outpost” are never mentioned (think Great Britain colonization circa 1800’s) – and for the purpose of the story, mostly irrelevant. His job is to set up an outpost as an embassy of sorts, to represent his country and act as a position of authority in that colony.  

The Magistrate we are following has acclimated to the culture. He speaks the language, he knows the seasons and understands the movements of the indigenous nomadic culture – he has become a respected authority figure. He spends his days helping the population and learning about the local history. He knows humanity.

When the police Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) shows up for an inspection, it is obvious that his martial way of handling things is not going to line up with the Magistrates even tempered rule. Joll is all about keeping peace and keeping the “barbarians” at bay. Joll and his contemporaries are convinced that in order to maintain peace, you must beat it out of those lower than you. Round all of them up and strike first before “they” can rise up against you. Does this way of thinking remind you of anything we are currently dealing with in the United States?

Joll employs intense “interrogation” methods to get information from the nomads, anything he doesn’t want to hear is treated as a lie and more “pressure” is introduced until he gets what he wants. Joll’s interrogations prove vicious and brutal, the Magistrate is caught between his loyalty to his country, and his humanity. After Joll leaves the Magistrate releases all the prisoners and lets them leave, horrified at what has happened. Now these “barbarians” who have known nothing but peace from the colony have left with a vendetta.

The Magistrate is left to deal with the consequences of Joll’s actions. He knows what has happened is wrong and is no longer interested in the affairs of his country. He sets out to make amends in the only way he knows how.

Rylance’s performance is absolutely superb, he is deft in his commitment to the role, every stutter and stammer. He is the lead and is supported by a few cameos. Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson are basically lifeless drones of what a “bad guy” is supposed to look like. Depp has a little more room than Pattinson in his role, but both feel a little underserved. The one that shines the most is the brutally beaten nomadic woman (Gaya Bayarsaikhan) who Rylance nurses back to health and becomes his moral compass of sorts.

The indeterminate time and place of this setting definitely helps the filmmakers lean into its parabolic messages. That is also the cause of a lot of my issues with the script. There is too much focus on hitting every story beat to fall into its neat little story, it felt rigid and tedious. The nearly two hours of runtime drag a lot in the first half. There is just enough beautiful cinematography to keep you invested until the story picks up in the later half. Ciro and his DP Chris Menges have created a beautiful portrait. The desert landscapes and sunsets are gorgeous and echo the untouched nature of both the peoples and the environment. There is a timelessness about the story that fits into any milieu, the use of force to bend a native population to your will notwithstanding. If there could have been a bit more freedom in the writing and the secondary roles, this would have been one to watch come awards season. There is still enough here to recommend watching.

3 out of 5

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