Waiting for the Barbarians

The Need for the Named Enemy to Strengthen Positions

Movies Action Drama
114 min     5.944     2019     Italy


Waiting for the Barbarians is a film adaptation of South African-born Australian novelist and Nobel laureate John Maxwell Coetzee. As in the novel of the same name, the film's events occur in a small town located on the border of the unnamed Empire. It should be immediately clear that the Empire is not a concrete state, but rather an abstract designation of a powerful sovereign ruler who colonized lands that belonged to other people. The main enemies of the Empire are nomads called barbarians.

Life on the border is calm and peaceful, so there is not even a small prison for criminals in the village. City affairs are run by an unnamed hero who holds the magistrate's office (Mark Rylance). He will meet Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who has arrived to prevent the barbarians' invasion. The colonel proves himself to be a master of interrogations, using sophisticated torture on the nomads. Having become attached to one of the victims, the magistrate suddenly begins to realize the true essence of the Empire's regime.

The film's main shooting took place in Italy, as well as in Morocco, which made it possible to shoot panoramas of the sandy desert.

The script was specially adapted for the film by the author of Waiting for the Barbarians. The writer left a considerable part of the book dialogues, ignoring the fact that the text's perception may differ from the attempt to recreate it on the set.

It ended up with an important story of invaders claiming to be rulers. All the same frightening truth that the punishers need the named enemy to strengthen their positions. And all the same unsightly essence of torturers, not feeling a pang of guilt. But because of the monotony of the film, it can be a bit boring to watch.


Louisa Moore - Screen Zealots wrote:
Adapted by Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee from his own book, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a timely screen retelling of the darkest (and most the most cruel) aspects of colonialism. This period film sadly reflects issues many are dealing with in present day: a society that’s relentless in its quest to oppress “the other.” An isolated frontier settlement on the border of an unnamed empire sets the stage for the epic story of a Magistrate (Mark Rylance), a kind soul who lives a routine existence respecting the rule of law, and the disquieting arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), a menacing man that quickly turns things upside down. Joll and his minions (including Robert Pattinson as Officer Mandel) have been tasked with reporting the activities of the ‘barbarians’ — and their methods are ruthless. The Colonel terrorizes people during violent interrogations, causing the Magistrate to question his own loyalty to the empire. Eventually, he embraces kindness and attempts to rescue a young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has been abused by Joll and return her to her family. The script is laid out appropriately, with clear introductions of the characters and an easy-to-follow story. The film is told in chapters and seasons (“The Return,” set in the Spring, is the most visually stunning). It’s filled with pretty shots (from director Ciro Guerra) and gorgeous cinematography (by Chris Menges), and the period set design and costumes are as detailed as they are handsome. It’s not difficult at all to overlook the (sometimes) slow pacing because the film is so well directed. Every performance here is stellar as well, with a standout turn from Rylance. He makes it easy for viewers to sympathize with his character’s lone beacon of compassion in a violent world. He brings the idea about the way empires feel they must invent enemies to remain relevant to the most basic human level, and that’s what ultimately becomes so effective about “Waiting for the Barbarians.”