Though he’s worked steadily since the turn of the century, Ciro Guerra only ascended into the upper tiers of contemporary world cinema quite recently. With 2015’s “Embrace of the Serpent” and last year’s “Birds of Passage,” the Colombian filmmaker announced and subsequently confirmed himself on the global stage with works that focused on the violent collisions between modernity and tradition in Aboriginal Colombian communities, and then tracked the aftershocks through an often hallucinatory lens.
By way of scale and star-power, “Waiting for the Barbarians” — which stars Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson, claims a Nobel laureate as screenwriter, and premiered in competition in Venice — marks his biggest step forward to date. In terms of artistic success, however, it’s at best a lateral move.
Guerra’s English-language debut finds the filmmaker working in a more subdued register, foregoing the oneiric flourishes of his most recent output for the more staid stylings of prestige literary drama — which might also reflect the stripped-down prose of author/screenwriter J. M. Coetzee’s source text. The Nobel laureate adapts his original novel with a strict hand, never veering too far from the allegorical narrative that helped clear his own path towards international glory — and therein lies the issue.
Guerra has soared in recent years by burrowing into the specific rituals, histories and practices of communities that remained all too often unseen on the big screen. Only here, the director spikes the ball all the way in the other direction, forgoing his past project of sensual ethnography to tell an opaque and figurative story about an unnamed Magistrate (Mark Rylance) living in the far reaches of some unknowable empire, and not doing much with it.
Divided into four chapters each named after a season, “Waiting for the Barbarians” follows this imperial flunky through his slow realization that he cannot disentangle his benevolent self-image — and apparent genuine respect for the native populations that are his charge — from the inherent sadism of his own imperial post. And the fact that the viewer and protagonist might reach such conclusions at widely different intervals does the overall film no favors.
When we first encounter our Magistrate, he’s living high on the hog administering his remote, mountains-and-plains outpost (the specific location is neither made explicit, nor is it supposed to be anywhere in particular, but the film was shot in Morocco and Italy). Things take a turn for the worse upon the arrival of foppish Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp, playing his role as a kind of stiff-upper-lip variation on his recent “Harry Potter” heel, Grindelwald), who has been sent from the metropole to investigate a potential uprising among the restless natives.
Is an uprising really in the offing? Probably not, but that doesn’t stop the Colonel from arresting the local nomads and securing confessions via torture. “Pain is truth, and all else is subject to doubt,” he says, echoing a famous quote from the novel, his own guiding beliefs, and the larger idea that the engine of empire is war. The locals may not be restless, but they sure will be once Joll has his way. There is an uprising on the border. This empire has always been at war with Eurasia.
Once the Colonel rides off, our Magistrate’s focus turns to one of the victims of Joll’s torture – a nameless Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan, of “Ex Machina”), who was maimed and blinded during her interrogation, and the lead’s infatuation with her occupies the middle section of the film.
By casting the ethnically Mongolian Bayarsaikhan in this role while using actors of different ethnic backgrounds to play the other “barbarians” (as Depp’s, and later Robert Pattinson’s, military characters sneeringly call them), Guerro signals his preference in exploring the larger allegorical resonances of this tale. He does so in an understated way — and the film suffers from that lack of audacity.
Thing is, allegory works differently in literature than in cinema. On the page, a bit of fuzziness with the details and a touch of concerted vagueness can have a dynamic effect, fueling the imagination for a narrative that already plays out in the mind’s eye. But film — ploddingly literal film — requires its creators to really build and shade-in this parallel world. Casting choices aside, “Waiting for the Barbarians” never really does, giving the proceedings a whiff of run-of-the-mill 19th Century literary epic that’s neither here nor there.
On a purely technical level, cinematographer Chris Menges does no disservice to the sweeping vistas at his disposal, Marco Beltrami conducts another noteworthy score, and Mark Rylance has never acted a false note in his career – it’s all perfectly well-done, and it all recedes into memory the instant you leave the theater, destined for the mental folder (or maybe Netflix targeted subgenre) called ‘Handsomely-Mounted Literary Epics Without Much Personality.’
Because once Johnny Depp turns up again to take on the hordes, this time with Robert Pattinson’s sadistic Officer Mandel in tow, we already know who are the real barbarians — but that doesn’t stop this film from hitting that point and hitting it hard. And sure, the point still stands. Today more than ever we could do with a film that engages with the mechanics of state-sponsored fear mongering or that seeks to demystify systems of power and oppression. But this is not that film.
Instead, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a film that puts on its best clothes, assumes its most sober voice, and then stands tall to tell us: Imperialism Is Bad. The message is not wrong, but it certainly is a disappointing use of Guerra’s talent.