Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) adapts J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians for the screen. The film, written by the author, is conventionally handled. Though a bit heavy handed, it is solidly done with a fine performance by Mark Rylance.
A magistrate (Rylance) exists at a desert post copying notes on pieces of flat wood. He is visited by Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) who tells him that there have been disturbances and crimes committed by the indigenous people (in Joll’s words derisive “barbarians”) and they need to be watched and subdued. The magistrate can find no evidence of any crime or wrongs committed by the peaceful inhabitants and argues for Joll’s men to leave.
The magistrate finds that Joll is taking random people as prisoners and torturing them.
A girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) comes to the magistrate. She has been horribly beaten and abused by a brand that burned her eyes and her ankles are broken.
Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll is clearly a man you love to hate. With his ashen pale face and Claude Rains sunglasses he looks like a death’s head skull from the Nazi era SS. In slow, lazy speech, he channels Marlon Brando in one of his villainous roles. Though his acting is kitschy, he does the job.
Robert Pattinson is Depp’s robotic right hand man.
With horror, the magistrate realizes that his fellow man is incited to hate the indigenous people, calling for blood. With echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a young girl beats a man with a hard pole.
Though Waiting for the Barbarians is predictable, Rylance gives another empathetic performance as a bureaucrat who discovers himself through kindness.
In its shots of immense desert that create a color field painting of ochre and deep blue, Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” will definitely come to mind.
Beware of trumpets.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org