Waiting for the Barbarians

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

Waiting for the Barbarians
dir Ciro Guerra
scr JM Coetzee
prd Michael Fitzgerald, Olga Segura, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi
with Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, Bill Milner, Gursed Dalkhsuren, Tserendagva Purevdorj, Isabella Nefar
release US 14.Aug.20,
UK 7.Sep.20
19/Italy 1h53

pattinson scacchi reid
london film fest

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depp and rylance
Adapted from JM Coetzee's acclaimed novel buy the author himself, this darkly involving drama takes a bracing look at imperialism. The film's tone is like a lament, exploring sad truths about foreign rule from deliberate cruelty to less intentional scarring. Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra knows something about the topic, and infuses the story with deep feeling. Mainstream moviegoers may find it morose, but what the film says is essential.
In a peaceful desert outpost on the edge of an empire, the Magistrate (Rylance) is visited by Colonel Joll (Depp) from the state security bureau. The Magistrate faces any conflicts with compassion, patience and understanding, so he's unnerved by Joll's predilection for viciously torturing unthreatening nomads he considers as marauding barbarians, creating a war out of thin air. After Joll leaves, the Magistrate tries to pick up the pieces, taking in a woman (Bayarsaikhan) who was violently abused. Then Officer Mandel (Pattinson) turns up, and he accuses the Magistrate of cooperating with "the enemy".
The hesitant pacing forces the audience to lean into the events as they unfold, mixing big ideas with understated storytelling. Of course, there are strong echoes here both of history and the present day. For example, the data Joll gathers from torture is false, resulting in a more organised military operation to put down this non-existent rebellion. Naturally, this only causes a series of escalating misunderstandings that the Magistrate desperately tries to diffuse. But his attempts to help inadvertently make the situation worse, adding even more layers of conflict.

Rylance gives the Magistrate a calm, stately presence, sensitive to the needs of those around him, feeling guilty about the deep pain his empire has inflicted on these innocent people. Depp is coolly vile as Joll, a sadist without even a hint of remorse. Pattinson plays his equally reprehensible character unflinchingly. And Bayarsaikhan has a strong impact in her role as a wronged woman who knows that there's probably no way back. The way these people interact is quietly riveting.

The film is visually sumptuous, photographed by the masterful Chris Menges to find raw beauty and imposing shadows in dusty landscapes and creased faces. Guerra carefully avoids sensationalising anything, keeping the violence mainly off-screen and focussing on the subtle glances and sounds that express the deeper yearnings of the characters' hearts. Even an epic sandstorm is captured with an intriguing everyday shrug. It may feel underpowered, but this is a powerful, devastating depiction of colonial rule,.

cert 15 themes, violence 9.Aug.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall