Waiting for the Barbarians: To Me Belongeth Vengeance, by David Bax
For English-speaking fans of director Ciro Guerra, the release of Waiting for the Barbarians is bittersweet. His first English language film, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is coming out on the heels of numerous accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. Having no reason or inclination to disbelieve Guerra’s eight accusers, I find it a little harder to enjoy seeing British and American movie stars like Mark Rylance (heartbreakingly pitiable as the movie’s protagonist, more noble simp than hero), Robert Pattinson (embodying the casual cruelty of institutional privilege) and Johnny Depp (doing the quiet version of his hammy thing as an immutable sadist) inhabit the filmmaker’s world. As a movie, though, Waiting for the Barbarians has more to recommend it than not. Perhaps consider offsetting the cost of your VOD rental with a donation to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, End Violence Against Women International or a similar charity?
Adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel by Coetzee himself, Waiting for the Barbarians is the story of an unnamed nineteenth century magistrate (Rylance) who oversees a small colonial settlement on the outskirts of a sprawling empire (Britain is not named but is the obvious corollary). The magistrate’s relatively peaceful life is upended by the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp), who has come to investigate rumors of a planned uprising by the region’s native peoples–he calls them barbarians–against the empire. Using torture to get the answers he wants, Joll then calls in the forces, led by his second in command, Mandel (Pattinson), who finds the magistrate’s naive protestations first boring and then irritating.
Since his international breakthrough with 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, anti-colonialism has been the driving force of Guerra’s work. In 2018’s Birds of Passage, he told the story of an indigenous family who wrestle control of an illicit drug trade from interlopers, only to be undone by what might foolishly be called their success. And his next project is to be a miniseries about the clash between Cortés and Moctezuma II. Clearly, this new film is no exception, with a title that all but begs you to ask, “But who are the real barbarians?!” Fortunately, there’s more to Guerra’s stylistic and thematic approach than that.
For one thing, he could never be so histrionic. Guerra’s firm creative control means each shot is exquisitely framed and lit, from the beams of dusty sunshine revealing a torture victim’s ghastly wounds to the ichorous black pools of Joll’s sunglasses. This aesthetic determination and discipline allows Guerra to make uncompromising statements without ever raising his cinematic voice.
There’s a perversion, as well, to Guerra’s patience. There’s a sense, in Waiting for the Barbarians, of being outside of time; Coetzee’s intentional lack of specifics plays a role in this, as well. As such, the portent is accompanied by a hint of genre-inspired escapism and–dare I say?–fun.
Among Embrace of the Serpent‘s colonial villains, perhaps the most vile were the representatives of the church. And yet there’s something big-C Catholic about Guerra’s vision of a world in which the flesh is as malleable as evil is permanent. Terrible things are matter-of-fact occurrences but, somewhere way out on the horizon, the punishment for those things is coming.