Based on a fictional novel by author J. M. Coetzee, ‘Waiting For The Barbarians‘ is a 2019 war drama directed by Ciro Guerra in his first English-language film. It had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is a fair, though imperfect man who oversees an Imperial frontier fort on the border of the desert. He maintains a good relationship with the locals and the nomadic people who wander about in the wilderness. One day, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives for an inspection, wondering about the “barbarians” on the frontier. At first, the Magistrate thinks little of this as inspections tend to happen. However, Joll aggressively questions a few prisoners, heading out into the desert, taking prisoners and torturing them for information. After he departs, the Magistrate releases the prisoners and helps a blind girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) return to her people. Things take a turn for the worst when Joll’s lackey Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) arrives to take over the fort, the Magistrate will face a new trial as war looms in the backgrounds.
I would like to say, the performances in this movie are phenomenal. Mark Rylance is excellent as the frustrated magistrate who is trying to rationalize what is going on in his jurisdiction. You feel his lack of power as he watches his small frontier collapse around him. Robert Pattinson delivers as well. His character is shrewd, devious, and maddening at times. Finally, Johnny Depp is mesmerizing as the sadistic and power-hungry Joll. Though the role is somewhat smaller than I expected, his on-screen presence is forceful and leaves you with a sense of dread.
The movie was not beloved by critics, but audiences seemed to favor it more. To be clear, it was not the outright discrepancy like we see for something like Hillbilly Elegy where critics outright hated it and audiences applauded it, but the divide is still there. Personally, I found the movie thought-provoking and engaging.
From reviews I have read, the book has a clearly anti-colonial theme and those themes exist in the film as well. That being said, the movie also has other themes, maybe unintentional, that the filmmakers put in. At one point, soldiers who are supposed to protect the frontier town raid it, and the citizens are held at gunpoint as they watch in horror. The scene shows the importance of civil liberties and the need for citizens to own means of protecting themselves. It also touched on the encroaching role of the large hand of the government, demonstrated in Joll and Mandel, taking away freedoms for an unseen “enemy” that the government itself created to spread fear and humiliating anyone who stands in there way. Those consequences are the crescendo of the movie. Again, unintentional perhaps, but that seemed clear to me in the plot.
Bottom line, Waiting For The Barbarians is a compelling war drama about the search for an Enemy to rally, but ultimately finding out who the true enemy is and the consequences of those actions.
PARENTAL CONCERNS: Disturbing content, Foul language, Violence, Sexual innuendo
FAVORITE QUOTE: There is no history here.
Check out the trailer below:
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