Director: Ciro Guerra
Writer: J.M. Coetzee (script, based on his novel)
Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan
Producers: Monika Bacardi, Michael Fitzgerald, Andrea Iervolino, Olga Segura
Music: Giampiero Ambrosi
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Running time: 112mins
What’s the story: In a desert outpost of an unnamed empire, the local Magistrate (Rylance) watches in horror as Colonel Joll (Depp) begins persecuting neighbouring tribespeople on suspicion of plotting insurrection.
What’s the verdict: All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing, so the saying goes. But, in Waiting for the Barbarians a good man – Mark Rylance’s unnamed Magistrate – witnesses evil blossom in the arid desert landscape no matter his actions to stop it.
Instigator of the terror that befalls the Magistrate’s outpost in a desert corner of an unnamed country, is Johnny Depp’s Colonel Joll. Remembering he is an actor of some ability, Depp sloughs off the Jack Sparrow pantomime and Grindelwald sleepwalking for a nuanced, terrifying performance.
His measured speech and self-assured gait personify the conviction of an empire that will perform any act to guarantee survival against enemies, no matter how imaginary.
Director Guerra’s English language feature debut is a powerfully relevant parable, disturbing in its depiction of how quickly civilisation crumbles when dominance and paranoia conjoin.
Noble laureate J.M. Coetzee adapts his 1980 novel into four segments spanning each season. Despite the oppressed being nameless, his lean script humanises each character, good and bad. With the broad strokes of a great parable, the plot shifts power between main players as hubris reaps its bitter harvest. Also like the best fables, a sting in the tail closes the story.
Rylance is outstanding as the happy bureaucrat unprepared for the viciousness with which the empire will defend its interests. Not that the film casts him as a saint; he believably develops a backbone over time and is not above self-serving atonement when adopting the Girl (Bayarsaikhan), someone who bears the scars of Joll’s interrogations.
Depp, echoing Sergi López’s turn as the fascist Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth, is supported by an equally menacing turn from Robert Pattinson as his protégé Mandel. Either smirking or furious, Pattinson’s Mandel is a dyed-in-the-wool empire man. Never questioning the ends justifying the means, Mandel is given climactic pause in a potent scene when the Magistrate confronts him with a simple question.
Guerra directs with the visual sweep and attention to costume and set design that typifies Zhang Yimou’s best work, recruiting legendary cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission) to capture the Moroccan and Italian locations.
Not easy viewing to be sure, but rewarding and a timely warning that the biggest empires instigate their own ruin when valuing land more than people.