A magistrate (Mark Rylance) in a small town along an unnamed “frontier” is visited by inquisitors from the empire. His peaceful if contradictory way of life with the natives is disrupted by the torturous Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) who seems determined to identify an enemy and drive it back at all costs.
The effect of removing any specific time-period or setting generalises the narrative to be about any colonial occupation, allowing the narrative much more freedom. It also has the effect of simplifying the narrative. The empire soldiers are all sinister and inhuman murderers, whilst the natives all tragically poor wretch’s who have even lost contact with their own history and culture. The magistrate obsesses over artefacts from the lands mysterious past and asserts that no one lives who can interpret it’s text. This elderly white man is the only scholar here.
Waiting for the Barbarians may not be saying anything new about imperialism, but it has some interesting perspectives. The magistrate would undoubtedly be the hero of this story in the hands of other film makers, the white saviour who must stand between the simple natives and his villainous countrymen. In this story, however, the magistrate is just another oppressor, no matter how well he means. His attempts to care for the people are patronising and in spite of his best efforts he fails to actually connect with the people he venerates.
Mark Rylance offers another compelling humble figure whose earnest and reserved nature is entirely believable. He is devastating in his moments of quiet despair and his relationship with a native girl is never anything other than cruel and sad for both of them. Depp is effective if limited as the cruel inquisitor. His speech about interrogation is certainly memorably delivered.
The movie is also beautiful. The production design has created a striking marvel with it’s richly detailed frontier castle. The Magistrate’s office in particular is a fanciful ancient library set against hard stone and lived-in wood. The landscapes of the hypothetical country and its sprawling deserts are striking. The simple moments in the lives that are lived in this world are exquisitely realised, from the gathering of a harvest of grapes to the meticulous study of the Magistrate’s ancient tablets. The peace is seductive which makes the violence all the more heartbreaking. The effect is that the film recalls the epic films of Powell and Pressburger or David Lean.
Ciro Guerra’s first English language film is similar in scope to his earlier films and explores many of the same themes as Embrace of the Serpent, and yet it does feel simpler and even slighter. Near the film’s climax there is the potential for violence that in this context may feel cathartic. Guerra knows to withhold this for the sake of impact, but rather than challenge the audience to feel empathy even for the vile imperialists, the true enemy simply sneak away into the night. In spite of the film’s visual prowess and compelling storytelling, it still feels like a pulled punch from one of the most interesting directors working today.