Ciro Guerra’s Waiting For The Barbarians is a finely tempered adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s elegantly allegorical novel about the brutal, self-defeating ironies of colonial oppression.
The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is, despite his grand title, an administrator, whose unobtrusive care-takingof a small nameless settlement on the frontier of The Empire gives plenty of time for pastimes.
A bright, inquisitive, decent man, he’s surprised by the unannounced arrival of Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp; relish but no ham), a government policemen sent to investigate rumors of unrest.The Magistrate expects that Joll’s visit is routine and that, like his predecessors, Joll will depart when the season changes, as but he is unprepared for the scope of Joll’s ambitions.
Unlike the amicable Magistrate, whose resting expression is one of bemused humility and whose sandy uniform, like those of his men, seems less like camouflage than coexistence, Joll is there to make an impression.
A rigid, black-clad martinent, his thin-lipped smile is one of private assurance that his procedures will wheedle out “the truth”. Suspicious of conspiracy – Jol sees the world through a glass darkly, literally – his procedures involve pressure, patience, and most particularly pain, inflicted pain on the nomadic population in search for “answers”.
Bound by the system of which he is a, mild, part, the Magistrate’s rebellion – implicit though it is – takes the form of small displays of humanity, limited acts of decency and benevolence.
In chapter two – each conveys the passage of a season – he enters in an awkward symbiosis with an indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan; Rylance’s equal for interiority) brutalised by Joll’s stormtroopers. Her hunched, reluctant form, shuffling forward on crutches, is so pervaded with violence as to obscurely evoke dread as much as pity – nor does she demand it.
The Magistrate’s Christ-like care for her – he falls asleep bathing her wounded feet, slumping forward as if in prayer – is similarly troubled; almost fetishising her pain and his salving out of need for self-absolution.
The script, adapted by Coetzee himself, refuses to allow for simple, readings. Part of the tyranny of colonialism, his novel suggests, is trying to force our interpretations upon other cultures; like the pieces of polished wood, covered in ancient, indecipherable cuneiform, recovered from the sands, which the Magistrate keeps in his office.
Chris Menge’s unostentatious cinematography finds a grandeur in sweeping vistas – the film was shot in Morrocco and Italy – and figures up on the parapets, but also a simpler beauty in the unadorned space of the Magistrate’s apartment; in the shaft of sunlight that illuminates his desk.
Others, like the bored, sadistic Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson; shades of Childhood Of A Leader), are less enlightened, which the Magistrate discovers to his cost. Greta Scacchi plays the Magistrate’s salt-of-the-earth housekeeper with David Dencik in a bit part as his clerk. Harry Melling, meanwhile, brings his large expressive eyes to bear as a soldier who seems to be constantly suppressing amazement by the turn of events.
Rylance is, as always, revelatory in conveying a mind at work, whether creeping beneath his countrymen’s hypocrisies or visibly quaking in fear at the prospect of their brutality being turned on him. The film’s presaging irony reaches a crescendo, though its final shot may be a revelation too far.
Even so, this is a fine, beautiful work and a strong (for me) unofficial opening to this year’s London Film Festival.