Waiting For The Barbarians – Anxiety, Cruelty, and Injustice

Anxiety, cruelty, and injustice – there are the feelings that you experience throughout the film Waiting For The Barbarians (2019). You are uncomfortable, sometimes you want to escape from the cinema because you cannot keep your place through the tense atmosphere. It always seems like something bad is going to happen. But the film knows how to keep in suspense. It knows how to ambush you. Together with the characters of the film you are waiting for the attack of those barbarians. However, you do not suspect that they have already attacked much earlier.

by Varvara Ushakova


Waiting For The Barbarians is an adaptation of the novel by Nobel laureate John Coetzee. The film was premiered at the 2019 Venice film festival, but did not gain popularity among audience and the press. In spite of this, there were quite contradictory reviews: some considered that the film was very boring and it protracted too long, others were delighted with the work of director Ciro Guerra, who masterfully had managed to transfer a literary masterpiece to the cinema screens.
The story takes place in a border fortress city located on the southern edge of the desert. Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives there to prevent an uprising, rumored to be prepared by local tribes, who are called barbarians.
The Colonel interrogates the prisoners brutally – from the character of Johnny Depp, no kidding, I got goosebumps. He could easily kill an innocent person after agonizing tortures. Next to Joll is his loyal assistant, officer Mendel (Robert Pattinson). You could call him the Colonel's shadow if that were true. Not a shadow, but a reflection in the mirror, however less disfigured by anger – the viewer still sees the officer as a person: when asked how he can sleep peacefully after what he did to people, he responds aggressively, because, in fact, a quiet sleep is just a dream for him.

The one that stands against the imperial lawlessness is Magistrate, masterfully performed by Mark Rylance. The main character of the film is a real idealist, a person who Serves with all the possible responsibility; he is also a humanist for whom the life of a person is more important than some protocol. He is tolerant because he staunchly endures what Colonel Joll does with the prisoners, awaiting that he will soon leave and life will come back to its former course. But in desperation the magistrate revolts against the Empire. He is fiercely protecting the nomads, cannot watch them being abused since the Imperials treat them worse than cattle, because "even cattle is not killed with a hammer".
And you know, this little broken child can be seen. The scene when the officers leave the town, the viewer sees Joll without glasses, in an unbuttoned cloak, without gloves and such scared sad eyes. Here arises the question, will we wait till the invasion of the barbarians from whose attacks Colonel Joll protected the citizens of the entire film? The answer is yes. And the attack will be brutal and obviously losing for the Imperials. But we will not see it in the movie. The picture ends very anxiously you see a huge horde of barbarians that is approaching the walls of the city. And titles. The film continues to keep in suspense even after you have left the cinema. Because the audience understands that the Imperials will get what they deserve – violence eventually breeds violence.
What is this Empire like? It is a utopian state created to combat the so-called barbarians who ravage cities and steal livestock. But the viewer does not see these atrocities Ascribed to innocent nomads by the Empire. In one moment you find out who are the true barbarians.
The Empire came to foreign lands, colonized them and established their own rules. In the end imperials kicked out the tribes that inhabited these places before and sent them to roam in the mountains, condemning to a poor existence. And the viewer scrolls in the head the title of the film for the hundredth time. We are still waiting for the barbarians. Or maybe they have already come? Because after all, the Empire is the true barbarians.

However, there are torn souls behind the brutality of the Imperial. It's worth noting that, it is a rare occasion when you can see the Colonel without his dark glasses: "They protect one's eyes against the glare of the sun. You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches". However, Joll is not protected only from the sun – he is cold, abnegated, he does not care about other people, he obeys orders and does it in any way. The glasses are a barrier that Joll has built so no one can see his true feelings. And so he couldn't bond to anyone. Glasses are some kind of armor that can protect the Colonel from the outside world. Johny Depp says:
I haven't played the Colonel as a sociopath. On the contrary, I began to reflect what made him for what he is. And I decided that there must be something of a little broken child in he.
If you try to replay the movie in the head, you can make the discovery that there are few events in the it. However, you need to be able to watch this kinds of films. You need to catch the meaning between the lines and it lies in the little things. Each scene reflects the mood of a moment, each detail characterizes the person.
And the viewer should correctly interpret these little things. This is the only way to get real pleasure from the picture. However, it is important to note that the film is significantly simplified in terms of metaphors compared to the original source. In spite of this, you should be watchful to see everything important.
To sum up, in any case the film is a bit of an acquired taste. Many people find it boring and protracted, and I think we can partly agree with them. There are not many bright events in the film. However, it is impossible to agree with the opinion that Waiting for the barbarians is the worst work of Ciro Guerra. In my opinion, the talented team of The screenwriter, the director and the actors made a great film with urgent issues and deep ideas. In any case, after viewing the picture the viewer will have food for thought.
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