Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) – Digital download

Waiting for the Barbarians by acclaimed director Ciro Guerra is a beautiful, well-acted, slow-moving allegory of imperialism.

Outpost of Empire

by Alexa Dalby

Waiting for the Barbarians

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In a town-like fort in the desert in the back of beyond, nominally defending the frontier of an anonymous empire against the ‘barbarians’, Mark Rylance, in sand-coloured battledress, is the gentle, unnamed Magistrate. He speaks the barbarians’ language and understands their customs. Life goes quietly on under his jurisdiction and the unneeded jail is used to store grain.

In sinister dark glasses and uniform, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) of the security forces descends on this backwater, seeking to make his mark. He aims to prove that the barbarians are preparing for war but his ‘investigations’ are torture. He stirs up trouble where none had existed. When the Magistrate tells him he is corrupting the people, Joll sneers that he is trying to be the ‘one just man’.

The Magistrate helps a vagrant woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) crippled and blinded by torture. Christ-like, he washes her feet, cares for her, and tries to return her to her people, the barbarians. This is his undoing: Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) is a harsh enforcer of punishment.

Waiting for the Barbarians‘ cinematography is luscious. In wide shots, lines of horses cross rolling sand dunes, the desert is ringed by icy mountain ranges, the screen bustles with soldiers and peasants in what looks like a Foreign Legion fort. It’s never specified where or when the events take place, but it’s the dog days of empire and it could be anywhere under imperialism.

Rylance’s quietly understated performance is sincere and moving – especially in a scene where he speaks his own truth – and Depp has a cracking line in cold heartlessness, but the pace is very slow. The aphorism-laden screenplay was adapted by J. M. Coetzee from his novel of the same title. The director is Colombian Ciro Guerra, critically acclaimed for Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage, in his first English-language film. Though it’s beautiful to look at and star-studded, unfortunately this allegory is also rather tedious: we already know who the real barbarians are.

Waiting for the Barbarians premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on digital download on early EST on 7 September 2020 and on VOD on 14 September in the UK.

Join the discussion