This movie is drawn from a 1980 book of the same name by J.M. Coetzee, a much-admired novelist raised in South Africa. It is an observation of life on the frontier of a militaristic empire, a desolate land whose inhabitants are nomadic and regarded as barbarians.
Its plot, if it has one, unfolds in an outpost run by an aging Magistrate (Mark Rylance,) who has been at the job long enough to learn the native language and who administers justice with an emphasis on fairness, not punishment.
“I’d feel like a foreigner if I went back to the capital,” he admits, “and the capital too must have changed since my years there.”
This observation comes after an inspector from the capital, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp with his hair combed) arrives to identify and suppress an expected barbarian uprising against the imperial regime. The colonel does not speak the local language and is unfamiliar with the region, but he is confident that his methods — “pressure” and “more pressure” — will help him find the “truth.”
At the fort, Joll meets a native man (who either stole some sheep or brought his son in for medical care) and sets to work. After some pressure, the man is dead and the son injured and traumatized. The inspector and his team set out, with the son, seeking their truth.
The main story question, of course, is who are the real barbarians? The second question is whether the Magistrate has gone native.
Later Joll and the gang return with similarly abused prisoners, including The Girl, a blind woman who needs crutches to walk but who, unusually, speaks English. The Magistrate ministers to her wounds in a way that is either Christlike or creepy. Hard to tell.
At one point, the Magistrate asks the Girl, “What do you feel toward the people who did this to you?,” a question that only could be asked in a film made after the year 2000.
Events proceed from there to an unsurprising and bleak ending that more or less supports the theme.
Book and film never identify a location, but the Asian features of the film’s nomadic people, and its setting on grass-covered plains edged with snow-capped mountains suggest the steppe region between Eastern Europe and Central Asia. (The movie was filmed in Northern Africa and Italy; the novel’s point is that cruel colonialism is the same wherever and whenever it occurs, which may be fair enough.)
Rylance’s role is like that of the gentle, honorable man he played in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. Johnny Depp plays against type, if you take Jack Sparrow or recent news reports to indicate what his type is: He is stiff, rigid and unyielding, not a challenge for any actor. Robert Pattinson, who plays Joll’s assistant, doesn’t get enough screen time to make an impression, which suggests it took a lot of editing to find the story line in this story.
The director of this movie, Ciro Guarra, is the Colombian who won much praise several years ago for Embrace of the Serpent, the story of an Amazonian native man in his youth and then in old age as his tribe is dying out. It is not surprising that a novel like Waiting for the Barbarians would attract his interest.
On the other hand, think about Guarra’s position in this situation. If Coetzee, the author of Barbarians (and a Nobelist in Literature) wants to write the screenplay, are you going to say no?
I read a good bit of that book. It is told from the Magistrate’s point of view, with much more introspection and nuance. The script’s action has been compacted, understandably, but the screenplay’s pacing is uneven at best. Also unsatisfying is its failure to give its native people, the barbarians, much of a voice. The ending makes sense, in a way, but is not particularly satisfying.
Let us give Coetzee credit for his literary awareness.
The title of his book and this movie is drawn almost certainly from a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, a Greek poet who understood classic Greek literature and lived between the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th. The poem is here.
For me, the poem’s last two lines are the most interesting:
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.
Let’s also talk about those sunglasses Johnny Depp wears in the movie– the ones with opaque dark glass and a gold cross above the lenses. They are exotic and unfamiliar to contemporary viewers, but they are a filmic meme that was mentioned (but not described as such) in the source book.
Anyone who took a psych class in the last third of the 20th century remembers unseeing sunglasses (making formulaic bad guys seem soulless) as part of the guards’ attire in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which we can hope has been forgotten by now. That experiment set out to replicate the Milgram experiments of the 1960s, which seemed to prove that Americans, like Germans, would be perfectly comfortable inflicting torture on disobedient suspects. The Milgram conclusion has been roundly challenged, and I hope truly, for more than 20 years.
In fact, the origin of the meme seems to be an old movie called “Cool Hand Luke,” which I never saw and have no plan to see. In that story, a nasty cop or prison guard wears mirrored sunglasse, i.e., the cop is soulless and cannot see or be seen. The bad cop never speaks but administers cruel justice.
So it was with the prison experiment, and so it is with the Waiting for the Barbarians book and story. It’s obvious, cheap and overdone.
In honest drama, the victims AND the victimizers are actual individuals.