Waiting For The Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
Waiting For The Barbarians
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Greta Scacchi, Gana Bayarsaikhan and Harry Melling​
Available on Digital Download from September 7th, 2020
Pre-order available here

by Bernie C Byrnes

If I had written this review immediately after I had watched Waiting For The Barbarians I would have rated it two stars and ‘boring’. It is an incredibly slow film. However, the more I thought about what I didn’t like about it, the more I realised that this film is brilliant! It’s an absurdist piece – and I’m a big fan of absurdism – and much like ‘Waiting For Godot’ where what I hate about it – that nothing happens – is the whole point of it, what I didn’t like about Waiting For The Barbarians is the very purpose of the film. It is filled with ambivalences.

Short Synopsis: at an isolated frontier outpost, a colonial magistrate of an unnamed empire suffers a crisis of conscience when an army colonel arrives looking to interrogate the locals about an impending uprising, using cruel tactics that horrify the magistrate.

The film is visually stunning. Gorgeous costumes and sets, intricate lighting, expansive mountain ranges and vast rolling desert landscapes put it right up there with classics like ‘Laurence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’, yet despite this there is artifice that translates areas of outstanding natural beauty into the staged window-dressing of a Disney theme park. If the camera had swung round to reveal the whole fort was actually hoardings it wouldn’t have been a surprise. The costumes are too clean, the horses too shiny, the sets too perfectly dressed. Mai (Greta Scacchi) bumbles round her kitchen like a child playing House. The townsfolk wander about self-consciously active, keeping themselves occupied by randomly sweeping and tidying things or interacting stagily with each other. The whole town jars. You can practically hear the crew clanking clapperboards and yanking on pullies. It feels like children playing make believe. Just when you start to write the whole thing off as bad direction enter Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and his men with even cleaner costumes and even shinier horses. At this point it becomes apparent that ‘playing being grown-ups’ is actually a brilliant depiction of Empire. The Frontier Settlement is out of place, it has no business there, it is an unwelcome intrusion imposed on a people who do not want it.

Joll arrives at the outpost to carry out random interrogations of the nomadic ‘barbarians’ and learn the truth about an attack on the outpost that he feels is imminent. Ironically his interrogations bring about the attack in a tragic example of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Depp’s performance has been pretty universally slated as ‘cartoonish’ in this film but I would argue that he brings the heightened, clunky, mannered embodiment of evil that the film requires. His depiction of Joll at the end when he has been over-powered and defeated is flawless.

To say that Robert Pattinson stars in this film is another peculiarity of the piece. He gets all of five minutes at the end but bizarrely lifts the whole movie and ties the two worlds together. Officer Mandel (Pattinson) acts as a half-way house between the inhuman cruelty of Joll and the beatific benevolence of the Magistrate (Mark Rylance). Rylance’s performance is so compelling in this role that it is easy to forget that the Magistrate is as much of a cartoon figure as Colonel Joll. His commitment to ‘being good and kind’ renders him equally blind and impotent. At one point, when he washes the captive girl’s feet, it is such an overtly Christ-like act that he literally faints, intoxicated by his own compassion. The Magistrate means well but is ultimately useless and just as deluded. Only Mandel and Garrison Officer Number 4 (Harry Melling) bring any sense of multi-faceted humanity to the piece. It is deliberately a land of caricatures.

The middle act of the film is given over to the Magistrate’s relationship with a nomad woman who has been tortured until she is crippled and nearly blind. There are problems here. It is one thing to view the main female character through colonialist perceptions of an unreliable narrator in a novel, but it is altogether more sinister to have Guerra’s camera treat her the same way. It took a bit of thinking about before the clarity of this storyline emerged. I’m so used to Hollywood objectifying women that it very nearly slipped under my radar. In a different film the Magistrate would have literally raped her to get the point unmistakably across but kudos to the creators for not taking this easy (and of itself problematical) route. It may be less obvious that his care of her is actually oppression but it’s compelling once the penny drops. Spoiler alert: colonialism is the enemy in this film.

Similarly – and rather alarmingly – the most gripping/thrilling part of the film is the depiction of torture showing a line of barbarians stitched together with wire. It was only after I thought about it that I realised this said something pretty dark and unpleasant about me as a viewer. Problematical here, like the depiction of ‘the girl’, is that without the leisure of Lockdown it may well have been lost on me. I’ve glutted on so many historical dramas depicting torture that I am in danger of overlooking its disturbing sadistic roots.

I would definitely class Waiting For The Barbarians as a Lockdown ‘must see’: the vileness of colonialism chimes in unsettlingly with the current news. Its claustrophobia, pointlessness and destructiveness make it a disturbingly pertinent film but sadly a bit of a dull one.


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