Adapted from the JM Coetze novel by Coetze himself, WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2019) serves up a political parable about imperialism, distinguished by its beautiful cinematography and strong performances by Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson.
The Magistrate is a compassionate governor of a fort on the desert frontier of a fictitious European empire. He respects the locals, who see the Europeans as temporary occupants of their land and whom the Europeans call “the barbarians.” Colonel Joll visits with police from the capital, intent on finding trouble, and eventually produces “evidence” of plans for a local uprising after torturing two men into confessing. Joll then forces one of them to take his soldiers to his tribe, where he takes prisoners to torture. This sets in motion a conflict between the Magistrate and the Colonel and an even larger conflict between the Europeans and the “barbarians.”
The moral of the story is simple: you reap what you sow, and you will sow the wrong things if you lack understanding and compassion. The Magistrate is presented as a Christlike figure between these two sides, valuing harmony while Colonel Joll values order.
This film has not gotten much love from critics and only a little more love from audiences. On the downside, the pacing is a bit slow, and the Magistrate can be a little frustrating in that he appears way too naive for somebody of his position. The conclusion sort of slams down suddenly and makes its point a little too neatly on the nose. Overall, though, I quite liked this one–it was a nice surprise and very different from what the trailer, jury-rigged to be sensational, suggested. The performances are terrific, the cinematography is beautiful, the world building is utterly immersive, the message is important, and the whole is strangely compelling.