Review: WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS Leaves Us Wanting More

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS Leaves Us Wanting More

Nobel Prize-winning, South African author J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, always seemed ripe for a big- or small-screen adaptation. Equal parts allegorical, metaphorical, and satirical, Coetzee’s trenchant critique of imperialism and colonialism contained the kind of Big Ideas irresistible to serious-minded filmmakers. 

But it took the better part of four decades, including Coetzee’s direct involvement as adapter and screenwriter and Columbian director Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage, Embrace of the Serpent) for Waiting for the Barbarians to finally make the jump from the printed page to digital screens of varying sizes and shapes. Despite languid, languorous pacing and allegorical plot devices over character development, thematically rich storytelling and Mark Rylance’s central performance, Waiting for the Barbarians manages to engage and enthrall more than it dissatisfies or disappoints.

In a blatantly obvious tipoff of Coetzee’s allusive, allegorical intentions, the central character, the Magistrate (Rylance), doesn’t have a proper first or last name. He’s known only by his government function, his government only identified as the (evil) Empire. The Magistrate rules over a borderland fort with a benevolence that belies his status as the agent of a vast, powerful empire that uses violence, real or implied, to rule ruthlessly over people and territory.

For the myopic Magistrate, the perks of an empire, including the obligatory respect, if not outright admiration, of the locals, and a relatively routine, materially comfortable lifestyle, never comes into question. There’s no doubt or reservation in the Magistrate’s untroubled mind. The Magistrate lives a life of privilege, of white privilege built on an unspoken, unacknowledged foundation of white supremacy expressed through empire-building and colonialism.

If the Magistrate is the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), represents his antithesis. Emerging from a horse-drawn carriage in an immaculate, navy blue suit, cape, and sunglasses (the first of their kind), Colonel Joll could have easily stepped out of the Star Wars universe. All he’s missing is a lightsaber and a fixation with the Dark Side of the Force. Minus the accouterments of science-fiction or fantasy, Colonel Joll is exposed for what he really is: The genocidal, tyrannical face of authoritarianism.

Without evidence or even credible information regarding the machinations of so-called “barbarians” beyond the borderlands, Colonel Joll relies on primal fear, the fear of “others” (skin color, language, culture) to dictate ruinous policies that lead to the torture of two men, the death of one, and the decision to mount an expedition beyond the fort’s walls based on false information. A firm believer in the efficacy of torture to obtain truth (not unlike the former vice-president of the United States under President George W. Bush), Colonel Joll’s actions predictably lead to more insecurity and danger, not less.

Divided into the four seasons of the year, ending with a foreboding winter that leaves the fort and its inhabitants in a particularly precarious position (far less ambiguous than Coetzee’s own novel) instigated by Colonel Joll’s actions, Waiting for the Barbarians keeps the Magistrate mostly front and center. The Magistrate’s moral awakening begins as a witness to Colonel Joll’s atrocities, but shift to resistance when he intervenes to save a young woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), left blinded by Colonel Joll’s brutality.

Partly as an act of penance, the Magistrate becomes the young woman’s caretaker. His compassion contributes to his precipitous downfall as an agent of empire and eventually his radical redemption as a human being who can evolve beyond his own biases and prejudices, but only at a loss of status and station.

Waiting for the Barbarians centers the Magistrate’s journey, from privilege to a fall from privilege (but not grace), from self-absorption to self-knowledge, and from a passive adherent of empire to resistance of that empire. Some of the complexity of Coetzee’s novel necessarily gets lost in translation, but the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist ideas remain and they remain as timely  ― and as timeless ― as ever.

Casting Oscar and Tony Award winner Mark Rylance, one of the subtlest, most empathetic performers, as the Magistrate qualifies as probably one of the easiest the producers could have made. Rylance is never less than watchable. Even when he’s not speaking, he’s conveying barely repressed emotion.

The Magistrate’s gradual self-awareness into self- and other-knowledge, born of observation and eventually direct experience as a victim of empire, is a testament to Rylance’s seemingly effortless skills as one of the best performers of his generation.

[Managing Editor's note: In the lead up to the release, allegations of sexual harassment were made against director Ciro Guerra, which he has denied.] 

The film is now available On Demand and Digital via Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

Waiting for the Barbarians

  • Ciro Guerra
  • J.M. Coetzee (screenplay by)
  • J.M. Coetzee (novel)
  • Mark Rylance
  • Johnny Depp
  • Robert Pattinson
  • Gana Bayarsaikhan
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Ciro GuerraJ.M. CoetzeeMark RylanceJohnny DeppRobert PattinsonGana BayarsaikhanDrama

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