Waiting for the Barbarians
6th October 2019 8.40pm at BFI Southbank
7th October 2019 12.30pm at odeontcr: Odeon Tottenham Court Road
9th October 2019 6.10pm at empire
Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a new departure for the director. His first picture in English, it is adapted from the novel of the same name by J M Coetzee. The movie, visually arresting and meditative in tone, takes us through Coetzee’s tale of colonial violence and prejudice as though it were a strange land bristling with hidden dangers.
We open in an unnamed country, the furthest frontier of a powerful empire. Mark Rylance, as the film’s protagonist, the Magistrate, quietly performs his colonial duties in a fortress town, the only Westerner among local farmers. The arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp, complete with menacing sunglasses) spells the end of the Magistrate’s scholarly comfort: Joll, along with his brutal sidekick Officer Mandel (a rather uncomfortable Robert Pattinson), is there to subjugate the indigenous “barbarians” beyond the fortress walls. The Magistrate finds himself fighting a one-man battle against his own side when he attempts to help the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), an indigenous woman who has suffered mutilation and displacement at Joll’s hands.
Rylance treads round the town like a medieval saint, his eyes raised to the skies or lowered to his books in a kind of perpetual benign wisdom. Guerra milks the religious parallels – at one point the Magistrate washes the Girl’s feet as if imitating Christ, and his fortitude under torture in the film’s harrowing climax has distinctly holy overtones. His subdued style suits Guerra’s restrained direction. Depp, too, adapts well to the film’s subtlety, and Bayarsaikhan turns in a magnetic performance as the enigmatic Girl.
In general, Guerra seems more assured when he is dealing with visuals than with dialogue. It doesn’t help that Coetzee adapted the script himself – each speech has a kind of portentous brevity that feels novelistic rather than cinematic. But the cinematography bears much of the film’s emotional weight, as Guerra brings his assured eye to bear on his actors’ expressive faces, or huge mountain ranges that recall 2009’s The Wind Journeys. A furious sandstorm is a moment of especial magnificence.
The Magistrate’s archaeological finds – a series of inscribed tablets – become repurposed later as faux-arcane messages about the state of the empire in the present day. It is a telling moment; history can serve just as well to illuminate the present as the past. Waiting for the Barbarians is a chilling indictment of the “them vs. us” mentality that drives acts of unspeakable cruelty in the cause of colonial subjugation. It is a poignant dive into the dynamics of alienation and connection between oppressors and the oppressed.
Waiting for the Barbarians does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.