Colombian director Ciro Guerra made himself known to the film world with his sizzling masterpiece Embrace Of The Serpent, presented at the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The film was a vocal criticism of white colonialism in Latin America, responsible for the destruction of the Amazon forest and for the crushing of indigenous populations. Waiting For The Barbarians, based on Literature Nobel Prize’s novel of the same name and presented in the Venezia 76 Competition, is another take on the devastating effect of colonial invasions by the European empires.
We’re at the fringes of an unnamed empire, at an unspecified moment in time. In a small, peaceful village at the frontier lives a man called “The Magistrate” (Mark Rylance). He’s a man of good nature, leading a serene life with local citizens, away from danger. The quiet existence of the town is disrupted when an officer of the Empire, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), arrives to town to prevent a potential invasion by the indigenous people of the desert, disdainfully called “barbarians”. Colonel Joll imposes a new code of order in the village, where even the smaller incidents are punished with death, causing fear and terror in the population. The Magistrate, faithful to the cause until then, starts to question the legitimacy of his mission,, entering a psychological war with the Colonel.
Despite the collapses of the European empires, it is quite clear that the mentality that brought colonialism is still alive and well. It doesn’t need to be in the form of invasions and occupations to be fully acknowledged. Take a look at what is happening just now: the world is regressing to a potentially destructive narrative of nationalism and borderline fascism. We would be fooling ourselves if we believed that these narratives didn’t stem from the same ideas that flourished during European colonialism and imperialism. Ciro Guerra’s Waiting For The Barbarians addresses that narrative, albeit with mixed results.
Painted with broad strokes rather than with light touches, the film is a faithful adaptation of Coetzee’s novel, but it’s one that suffers from exceedingly austere pace and an emotionally dry core. The cinematography offers a duality of images that go from the sweeping desert landscapes that surround the village to the disturbing, gut-wrenching sequences of torture, to the simple interiors of the Magistrate’s private life, giving the viewer a clear visual understanding of the world where the movie is set, but it’s in the script-driven scenes that the film falters. The characters sound hardly believable, despite the efforts of the actors playing them, with Mark Rylance towering above the rest. It’s an acting masterclass by the legendary British actor, who gives his Magistrate an acute sense of humanity in his war against a multi-headed monster. Every word he says has a shade of contempt towards the empire he’s been representing, every troubled look hides a crisis of his self, slowly realizing the position of privilege he has enjoyed in his tenure as magistrate. In a film that distances itself from emotions, it’s Mr. Rylance’s profoundly human performance that gives it depth and makes it relatable. He wins every second of the “battle” against his two co-stars, the rather unimpressive Johnny Depp as the horrific Joll, too busy speaking his lines with a mean look and a slow articulation to be fully believable, and a Robert Pattinson as the mean-spirited Officer Mandel, that flirts way too often with caricature.
“Barbarian” derives from a word with which the Ancient Greek identified foreigners unaccustomed to Greek culture and language, that only in western discourse has come to signify “ignorant, violent people”. Therefore, who are the barbarians in Coetzee’s novel and Guerra’s film? Are the indigenous tribes Colonel Joll is trying to repress? Or are they the invaders from the empire? And are we about to relive that past? This is the question that the cinematically contradictory Waiting For The Barbarians, stuck between a self-restrained, understated storytelling and a rather heavy-handed screenplay, tries to answer.
This review is from the 76th Venice International Film Festival.