Movie Reviews

Published on August 3rd, 2020 | by Michael Newman

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Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians is based on the novel of the same name written by Nobel Prize winning writer J.M Coetzee who also provided the screen writing for the film.  It is directed by Ciro Guerra and stars Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattison.

In a remote border town, The Magistrate’s (Mark Rylance) responsibility is to oversee the day-to-day operations.  On the desolate frontier, surrounded by desert on all sides, his biggest concerns appear to be the occasional stolen farm animal from a group of peaceful nomads that seasonally come down from the mountains.  For years it has been this way, until Colonel Joll from the empire’s police force (Johnny Depp) arrives with orders from the ruling party to gather up, interrogate the local “barbarians” and drive them back into the mountains.  Much to Joll’s delight, two “barbarians”, a young boy and his uncle, have arrived in town in search of medicine.  Joll utilizes this opportunity to coerce the young boy into stating that a large army is amassing in the desert to attack the empire.  Even though it’s apparent to the Magistrate that this confession has no bearing in reality, it’s clear that the beating death of his uncle and the sheer abuse the young boy endured at the hands of Joll, was Joll’s purpose all along.

Joll, and a group of his police force ride out into the desert to round up a small group of “barbarians” and brutally interrogates them all, adding credence to the Empire’s concern that a war is on the horizon, he leaves the border town to prepare for the oncoming onslaught.  The Magistrate, who’s world has been turned upside down, is left with the fallout of what has been done to these nomadic people.  One woman, who has been abused and blinded is left in the town, with no means to get back to her family or her people.

The Magistrate takes pity on the young woman and brings her into his home. After some time, he asks if she would like to be taken home or stay with him.  As much as he wishes for her to stay, he reluctantly sticks to his word and takes a weeklong journey through the barren landscape to deliver her back to her people.

Upon returning, Joll and his secretary Officer Mandel (Robert Pattison) accuse the Magistrate of treason, strip him of his title, and torcher him in an effort to understand what he knows about the “barbarians” and what attack they are planning.  It is here, where the Magistrate wonders aloud who the real barbarians are…and states that the Empire are the true Barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an unknown region representing what appears to be the middle east. The timeframe would appear to be something out of the early 1900’s and the costumes are representative of something out of Lawrence of Arabia. The empire itself is also not named specifically, but it is clear that it is a vast empire that will go to no ends to secure their position of power regardless of threats (both perceived and actual).  It’s clear throughout, who the real Barbarians are.  It’s made clearer when Joll regularly refers to the indigenous people as “Barbarians” while the Magistrate consistently refers to them as “nomads”.

Mark Rylance does an outstanding job as the Magistrate.  A man, who lives a peaceful existence with the nomadic tribe around him, who not only learns the native language, but treats them fairly.  He doesn’t see these people as the enemy, but only as a group of people with whom he shares the vast expanse with.  Much like the expansion and colonization of old, it is the conquerors who the indigenous people feel are the trespassers on their land, not the other way around.  A point that the Magistrate himself brings up when he states that the people are hoping that they will eventually move on.

Johnny Depp brings is usual quirky style and dark personae in his role as Joll.  A ruthless individual, who clearly finds joy in the torture and humiliation he projects on others.  Wearing his new sunglasses, something that those on the frontier have never before seen, and his fancy clothes, he imbues a sense of authority and power which the others of the town do not possess.  Robert Pattison, while not featured until more than half-way through the film, does an outstanding job as officer Mandel, and lead torturer.  His character compliments Depp’s character and the two of them make for a frightening duo.

Waiting for the Barbarians still strikes a chord today and asks the viewer the question “who are the barbarians”?  It’s a deep and unsettling movie that asks you to take a look inside yourself.  While it takes place in the distant past, it’s lessons still are true today.  It’s visually a masterpiece and the strong acting by not only Depp and Pattison, but by Mark Rylance drive this epic home.  It’s certainly not the feel-good movie of the summer, but one that asks the viewer to reflect on themselves and the world around them.  Are things really much different now than they were before?

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

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