On paper, Waiting for the Barbarians is a sure thing – director Ciro Guerra, with two exceptional indigenous peoples-focused films under his belt, adapting a lauded novel about imperialism, backed by a heavyweight cast that includes Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson. Yet, sadly, something has got lost on the way between that tantalising premise and the stodgy end result, which never quite works out where it’s going.
Rylance plays the Magistrate, a senior administrator in the far reaches of some unnamed Empire in what looks like the early 19th Century. He resides over a small settlement that acts as a border between ‘civilisation’ and the nomad ‘barbarians’ that reside in the desert (though shot in Morocco, the environment here is more evocative of the dusty Central Asian steppes). He thinks of himself as a good and fair man, but his position as a cog in a violent expansionist machine becomes undeniable upon the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp), a sadistic military police officer, always looking at the world through a pair of tiny, darkened glasses.
Joll unleashes a wave of terror on the local nomads, torturing them into ‘confessing’ their plans to start a large-scale war with the Empire in order to have an excuse to expand even further into their homeland. These early scenes are compelling, Rylance on good form as the Magistrate’s soft-spoken gentleness is undone by the horrors he witnesses, while Depp is the most watchable he’s been since Black Mass. Guerra and JM Coetzee, adapting his own novel, also have a lot of fun with the title in these moments. Through Joll’s eyes, he’s waiting for the native barbarians to attack, while from the Magistrate’s point of view, Joll is bringing them himself. Of course, we know the real answer – the barbarians have long-since arrived by the time the film starts and what’s worse, they’ve brought their ‘civilisation’ with them.
It’s a biting, acidic take on imperialism, but its impact is dulled by the glacial pace the film eventually takes on as the Magistrate tries to right Joll’s wrongs. Scenes of him washing the feet of an abused native woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) drag on for an uncomfortably long time, and there are very few moments of catharsis to be found in the long stretches of pensive quiet. Even the late arrival of Pattinson, as Joll’s ferocious toady Officer Mandel, only lifts the doldrums for a brief time, with Pattinson given far too little to do.
The environments are gorgeous, and the core cast acquit themselves well, but Waiting for the Barbarians is boring, meandering through its thin plot with far too little urgency. With its sweltering heat and frustrated bureaucrats, it calls to mind Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, but lacks that film’s complexity and wry sense of humour. Going through the motions without much in the way of excitement or emotional heft, Waiting for the Barbarians feels like a middle chapter in a larger story, ultimately leaving you with a sense of something unfinished and potential unfulfilled.