Humanity is on full display in Ciro Guerra’s latest feature. When dealing with humanity there are many nuances to navigate. When talking about morality, there is a certain tone and storyline that must be followed. If someone is talking about spirituality or the subconscious, there are even more rules and subtext. In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Guerra is able to bring to the conversation a mingling of all that humanity has to offer – both the good and the irredeemable.
But just because he can, doesn’t mean he should. If that sounds like a lot to show in a single movie, that’s because it is. 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 without leaving enough room for tone.
This may be compounded by the fact that this is Guerra’s first feature film in which he was not also its writer. That responsibility fell to J.M. Coetzee, who also wrote the novel on which the film is based. This is Coetzee’s first screenplay credit, but the Nobel-winning author certainly knows what he is doing, whether he’s writing for the screen or the page. However, I’m wondering if that one-two punch is doing a disservice to the film’s overall integrity.
The story itself centers on the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) of a distant outpost. For the purpose of the story the country that houses the Magistrate’s “distant outpost” is mostly irrelevant and never mentioned, but think Great Britain colonization circa 1800. His job is to set up an outpost as an embassy of sorts in order to represent his country and act as a position of authority in the colony.
Over time the Magistrate has acclimated to the culture, learning the language, knowing the seasons and understanding the movements of the indigenous nomadic culture. As a result, 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) arrives for an inspection, it’s obvious that his martial way of handling things is not going to line up with the Magistrate’s even-tempered rule. Joll is all about maintaining the peace and keeping the “barbarians” at bay, and in order to do that, Joll and his contemporaries are convinced 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 obtain information from the nomads, and anything he doesn’t want to hear is treated as a lie, leading to more “pressure” until he gets what he wants. Joll’s interrogations prove vicious and brutal, and the Magistrate is caught between his loyalty to his country and his humanity. After Joll leaves, the Magistrate releases all the prisoners, horrified at what has happened. Now these “barbarians” who have known nothing but peace from the colony have departed with a newfound vendetta.
As a result, 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, so 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, with every stutter and stammer. He’s the lead supported by a few cameos, but despite the high-profile billing of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, the two are essentially 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 who shines the most is the brutally beaten nomadic woman (Gaya Bayarsaikhan) who Rylance nurses back to health and who serves as his moral compass of sorts.
The ambiguous time and place of this setting definitely helps the filmmakers lean into the film’s parabolic messages, but it’s also the cause of a lot of issues with the script. There is too much focus on cramming every plot point into its neat little story, which leads to it feeling rigid and tedious. The nearly two hour runtime drags a lot, particularly in the first half. There is just enough beautiful cinematography from Guerra and his cinematographer Chris Menges to create a beautiful portrait and keep viewers invested until the story picks up in the latter acts. 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 had been a bit more freedom in the writing and the secondary roles, this would have been one to keep an eye on come awards season. Instead, it likely won’t have a chance to take home any hardware, but it’s still worth a watch.
“Wating for the Barbarians” is now available to rent or purchase on VOD services.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.