'Waiting for the Barbarians': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
What if we are the barbarians?

Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson star in a J.M. Coetzee adaptation directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra ('Embrace of the Serpent').

A civil officer in a sleepy border town of an unnamed empire unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the machinations of power in Waiting for the Barbarians, the English-language debut from Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage, the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent). Barbarians is based on the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee, who also penned this adaptation. Set in an unspecified geographical area that looks Middle Eastern but in an Arabian Nights-fantasy-on-a-budget kind of way, this is a beautifully, if austerely, staged parable that casts the always-reliable Mark Rylance as the well-meaning Magistrate. That said, the story’s antagonists, played by Johnny Depp and, in a sidekick role, Robert Pattinson, will probably get the lion’s share of attention from both the press and audiences, even if the only role with any meat on its bones is Rylance’s. 

This Venice competition title is conspicuously skipping Toronto but will go to the Deauville, San Sebastian and London fests. Indeed, considering its cast, director and literary pedigree, it's prime festival fare. Commercial prospects seem shakier — how do you convince people to hire a babysitter and travel to a theater in order to watch a star-studded allegory about the deceiving nature of barbarism? Waiting for the Barbarians would probably be more at home on a streaming platform, where the marquee names could be enough to earn a click on that play button.

Rylance’s character, known only as "the Magistrate," looks quite at ease in his job at a forgotten outpost of "the Empire," close to its desert borders. Most of his work is thoroughly routine, and he has been there long enough to have learned a few things about the locals and to have picked up something of their language. (Mongolian is used in the film’s intentionally vague potpourri of cultural influences; the film was shot in Morocco.) From what little we see of him in the early going, the Magistrate seems to be a relatively wise and fair white man who abhors violence of any sort. When, in the film’s first chapter (called "Summer. The Colonel"), police Colonel Joll (Depp) of the Bureau of State Security arrives for an inspection, the civil officer explains proudly that there’s little need for a prison in his walled town. The few offenders they occasionally have are simply fined for their trespasses. 

Clearly Joll, dressed in suffocating black as opposed to the beige linen of the Magistrate’s outfit, far better suited to the sweltering weather, has other ideas. After the Magistrate has questioned two captured "barbarians," a boy and his uncle who explain that they've come into town for medicine, Joll insists on interrogating the duo as well. "Patience and pressure" are the only way to get to the truth, Joll says. What precisely he means by "pressure" becomes clear the next day, when one of the prisoners is dead and the other severely injured. The Magistrate can’t believe it when Joll claims, in his interrogation record, that the boy had admitted that his clan is arming itself and that a "Great War" will happen with the Empire.

As a screenwriter, Coetzee closely follows the general outline of his novel, which is in turn reminiscent of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. Joll will return with more "barbarian" prisoners — the Magistrate prefers the term "nomads" — who Rylance’s character releases as soon as Joll leaves. But the Colonel, as someone who has come from the center of power and who supposedly has the law on his side, clearly knows that the Empire needs real or perceived enemies for it to maintain its position of dominance. 

The critique of those in power and their need to put down others — preferably foreign or different-looking people — in order to stay on top is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1980, when the novel was first published. But like its noncommittal production design, which combines various North African, Middle Eastern and Asian influences for the locals and locales, the critique itself remains finally quite dull and dispersed because it's so broad and unspecific. Whereas novels allow readers the luxury of imagining that countries left undescribed look like their own, films require something concrete and definitive onscreen. 

The only character who evolves is the Magistrate. He becomes an outcast after he takes an interest in a "barbarian" girl (Mongolian actress Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has been tortured (his sexual interest was more obvious in the novel). When he follows her back into the desert to return her to her tribe, Joll returns to accuse the Magistrate of treason and abandonment of his duties. Suddenly the government worker has become an enemy of the Empire. It is here, about halfway in, that Joll’s secretary, Pattinson’s Officer Mandel, makes his entrance. Sadly, it's a rather flat supporting role that breaks the actor’s recent hot streak of superb character work in The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life, The Lighthouse and, also in Venice this year, his best-in-show cameo in The King

The central conceit of Waiting for the Barbarians is that the well-meaning Magistrate experiences what the Empire he works for inflicts on those it has branded its enemies, with the supposedly fair man thus confronted with what his employer is really capable of. "We have no enemy, unless we ourselves are our enemy," the Magistrate says at one point. But it's clear much earlier in the story that the titular barbarians aren’t the vaguely ethnic-looking people living in the borderlands and that even people who think they are impartial are implicitly part of a machine that wreaks terrible havoc.

Though we know very little about the lead character, Rylance is expressive enough for the viewer to pity this supposedly good man who's ground to a pulp by those more powerful than him, authorities who know next to nothing about the reality on the ground. Depp is also well cast as an eccentric man with newfangled sunglasses whose mean streak is given free rein by his higher-ups, who are never seen but whose need to remain in power overrides all other considerations. 

In his exquisite Birds of Passage, Guerra — who co-directed that drama with Cristina Gallego, an executive producer here — used the specific Colombian context to turn a familiar gangster tale into something that was not only authentic but also felt fresh. Here, his job is almost the opposite, as he has to scrub out specific details to make a tale feel more timeless and to underline its allegorical qualities. There is no denying that his work with cinematographer Chris Menges (The ReaderThe Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) and production designers Domenico Sica and Crispian Sallis, doing a lot with very little, has yielded some impressive visuals. But the lack of cultural specifics combined with the fact that the characters are archetypes finally leaves Waiting for the Barbarians somewhat stranded. 

As a viewer, it requires hard work to feel something that goes deeper than common-sense pity when confronted with stock characters stuck in a generic predicament in a nonspecific time and place. The sheer force of Rylance’s performance almost makes it work.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Iervolino Entertainment, Ambi
Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi
Director: Ciro Guerra
Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee, based on his novel
Producers: Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Michael Fitzgerald, Olga Segura
Executive producers: Martin Franklin, Cristina Gallego
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designers: Domenico Sica, Crispian Sallis
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Music: Giampiero Ambrosi
Casting: Leo David, Lissy Holm, Victoria Beattie
Sales: Ambi

In English, Mongolian

112 minutes