Waiting for the Barbarians is fiction, adapted by screenwriter J.M. Coetzee from his own 1980 novel; but it has at least one historical precedent in fact. The country in which it takes place and the empire imposing its control both go unnamed, but it isn’t hard to imagine that they could represent Britain and India or Spain what would eventually become the Americas. Colonialism, after all, looks similar regardless of the context, and so the vague attributes of Coetzee’s story ring devastatingly true. This is an unrelenting film about the worst that colonialism has to offer.

That story is told almost entirely from the perspective of a magistrate (Mark Rylance) at a frontier outpost, responsible for overseeing the wellbeing of military officers and the imprisonment or indentured servitude of the area natives whom the colonizers call barbarians. When a nomad is accused of stealing a sheep, he receives harsh punishment (just the first of such acts of violence) and supposedly reveals a local readiness to wage war on the imperial forces. This attracts the attention of those who hold power within the empire, obviously.
To that end, we get the rest of the magistrate’s story in three stages as three different men are sent over the course of the next year.

The empire first sends Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), a sinister man with odd spectacles and an appreciation for torture as both an information-gathering tool and a deterrent by inflicting it on loved ones. Depp’s chilling performance is among his best; he portrays Joll as a calm, calculating, sadistic man who does not consider the locals to be people at all but to be useful commodities and, if necessary, slaves or guides. In one horrifying instance, he has mutilated the nomad mentioned above and planned to keep the man’s son, who suffers infection from a cut just below his neck, as guide.

The magistrate begins to doubt both his position and the practicality of colonization with his exposure to Joll’s brutality, but what really seals the deal for him is a local girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has been crippled and blinded by Joll’s men – in this case, as a deterrent for her father’s continued loyalty. Ignoring the objections of the second man, a heartless, war-hungry lieutenant played by Sam Reid, the magistrate hatches a plan to return the girl to her people, a plan that goes awry when they are captured by agents of the empire. At this point, the empire turns on its magistrate and tortures him, completing that useless cycle of violence under the sneer of Colonel Joll and the third man, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson).

Pattinson plays Mandel as simply another variation of this parade of colonizers. If the colonel is sadistic and the lieutenant uncaring, then the officer is the unpredictable, physically violent wild card of this movement to thwart any violence perceived to be a threat from the local population. He’s as much of a live wire as Depp and Reid are opposing energies, and the collective effort of the actors makes damned sure that one will not easily forget their faces and deeds. The story’s conclusion, as one might expect, offers no reassurances about the future of this place in the face of such an intrusion of ideas and social structures and racial and class-based supremacy.

It is the crushing wheel of colonialism, after all, and Coetzee and director Ciro Guerra are careful to remove any chance of escape for these characters. In that way, the story of Waiting for the Barbarians might be fictional, but it isn’t any less truthful or perceptive. It helps, too, that the magistrate is our window into this world. Rylance’s performance is quietly devastating in how the actor communicates a tough character’s sympathetic shift. The man is almost certainly part of the reason this outpost, these subordinate officers, and his commanding officers are here. The tragedy of the story is that he couldn’t escape the bed he helped to make.

An unrelenting film about the worst that colonialism has to offer.
80 %
Colonialism’s Malcontents
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