Thursday, August 06, 2020

Waiting for the Barbarians

In this far desert country, the temperature is hot, the air is dry, and the allegories run heavy. This is the distant frontier of an unnamed European empire. The uniforms look French, but the geography resembles Eurasia. During his tenire, the unassuming Magistrate has largely maintained a climate of laissez-faire tolerance with the locals. Of course, when an inquisitor from the capitol comes looking for trouble, he will inevitably find it in Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

We know by now nothing good comes from a visit by the Inspector General. That would be Colonel Joll, who is conducting a fact-finding mission along the frontier. Much to the Magistrate’s surprise, he is bizarrely interested in two rather pathetic sheep thieves he is holding in custody. After a ferocious interrogation session, Joll and his troops tear off after the suspects the broken men named.

The world-weary Magistrate fully understands the Colonel’s campaign is a self-fulfilling prophecy (as does the audience), but Joll is a power unto himself. Despite the precariousness of his situation, the old bureaucrat will do his best to make things right for at least one of Joll’s victims, a nomadic woman, who stirs feelings of both pity and longing within him.

The very title of
Barbarians conspicuously evokes a Pogo-esque response, along the lines of: “but we were the barbarians.” There is absolutely no subtlety here whatsoever. Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee adapted his own novel, but the dreaminess of the book becomes the broad strokes and bombast of propaganda theater.

Nevertheless, Mark Rylance (the king of nebbish angst) does his best to portray the Magistrate with tragic sensitivity. He also develops an intriguingly complicated relationship with the Woman, played by Mongolian thesp Gana Bayarsaikhan, but the narrative surrounding it is awkward and clunky.

Frankly, Johnny Depp seems rather bored going through the motions of Joll’s villainy. On the other hand, Robert Pattinson mostly engages as bursts of inexplicable anger as Officer Mandel, like he knew his part would be consigned to the film’s margins (while still looming large over the one-sheet).

The best work, not surprisingly, comes from master cinematographer Chris Menges, who gives
Barbarians epic sweep and scale worthy of a David Lean film. His final shot is almost worth the price of admission on its own, but not quite.

Coetzee has a reputation for being difficult to translate to the screen, which he sort of proves here, but Steve Jacobs’
Disgrace made quite a good job of it several years ago. Perhaps the fable-like story would have been better suited to a shorter format. Regardless, Guerra’s two-hour running time is most certainly too long. Not recommended, Waiting for the Barbarians releases tomorrow (8/7) on VOD platforms.