Cinema Review: Waiting for the Barbarians | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, February 26th, 2021  

Waiting for the Barbarians

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Directed by Ciro Guerra

Aug 04, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s first English language film sees him adapting J. M. Coetzee’s novel about a fictional empire with all the style and brutality you’d expect.

Clearly a man fuelled by anger and sadness towards his own country’s colonization, Guerra has made two quite definitive postcolonial works about his homeland. 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent is a tender, sorrowful and at times gruelling ode to Amazonian indigenous cultures. His 2018 follow up, Birds of Passage, is a crime epic that focuses on the cocaine industry’s bastardization of the Colombian Wayuu people and their traditions.

It seems only natural then, that he may feel like he’s said what he’s needed to regarding Colombia’s colonial history, so where next? Perhaps Guerra could still tackle the rest of the world’s empires. Perhaps he could address the effects colonialism has had in Africa or Asia by the British or other European countries. Or perhaps he could find a way to blend all of these together in a film about a fictional empire unleashing brutality upon a fictional people in a fictional, unspecified land. If so, then South African author J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians may be the perfect way to encapsulate colonialism’s far reaching consequences on innocent native peoples the world over. 

Content in his outpost in the middle of nowhere (some blend of countries that stretches from North Africa to Mongolia, occupied by British and American forces) and comfortable with settlement life, a Magistrate (Mark Rylane) is forced to question his allegiance to the Empire when the cold Police Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) shows up in preparation to defend the outpost against a potential attack from unseen Barbarians. With his eyes hidden by newly invented sunglasses, the hard-to-read Joll discusses little of his plans to quell an attack with the Magistrate before brutally beating, deforming and killing local native folk. Outraged by the treatment of seemingly innocent people, the Magistrate questions Joll’s tactics who in turn defends his actions as appropriate questioning and punishment with all the paperwork in order.

Soon after, Joll leaves the settlement to return to The Capital, leaving the Magistrate to deal with the damage caused by his visit. The Magistrate releases prisoners, investigates murderers and tends to a blind and beaten girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan). In his treatment of the Girl, the Magistrate grows fond of her and his sympathies towards her and her people begin to reshape his commitments to the Empire.  

Waiting for the Barbarians’ sympathies, its anger, the direction in which it points its blame are simple: the empire is evil, the nomads are innocent and this colonial mission is wrong. The war of which the colonizers speak of is non-existent. The formerly blind civil servant is now beginning to see the Empire for what it is: the real barbarians. Now, this truly is a simplistic framing, and the fictionalization of the film could’ve allowed for a muddying of waters, for a complexity of motivations. But that doesn’t stop Barbarians from being rather effective. Joll and Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) are cynical, psychotic archetypes of authority whose performances are measured enough to strike fear without feeling overly hammy. Rylance’s pensive and conflicted Magistrate has a trajectory that takes no skill to gauge, but his performance isn’t a begging and grovelling call for help, it’s chipped away at, always balanced between pride, self hatred and defeatism.

Where Guerra portrayed the distinctive beauty of indigenuous Amazonians and the Wayuu people, providing a texture to their cultures that permeated his last two films, here he falls short. It’s natural given the generalisation of the film’s nameless people and unspecified location but Barbarians lacks the singular, breathtaking vision of its predecessors.

That said, it certainly knows how empires work. He knows there isn’t any barbarian in particular that they’re waiting for. Barbarity is just a name for the retaliation towards empirical aggressors. Waiting for the Barbarians may not be doing anything remarkable, but its calm and to-the-point framing of fictional colonizers gives it a certain command, even if the fabric of the film leaves something to be desired. 


Author rating: 7/10

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