Waiting for the Barbarians walks well-trodden ground for Columbian director Ciro Guerra, most famous for helming Birds of Passage and the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent. In an attempt to stitch another rich tapestry of forgotten and violated communities, it seems Guerra’s hands were clamped. Only a lack of dexterity could result in the disappointment that is Barbarians. The film is a sleepy adaptation that refuses to fully utilize the known talents of its cast. The only redeeming feature is Guerra successfully making what seems to be his main point: colonizers of all temperaments and philosophies need to be scrutinized.
One such colonizer is Mark Rylance’s ‘The Magistrate’. Rylance’s naturally soft features and unimposing profile immediately paint him as an amicable presence. The Magistrate’s precise antithesis is presented in Johnny Depp’s Colonel Joll, whose doggedly violent attitudes towards the local people form tragic and barely watchable scenes.
A clear good-bad balance is drawn between the two before Guerra cuts deeper into the many faces of colonialism. Although Joll represents the very worst example of a tyrannical invader, The Magistrate is nonetheless a complicit agent of the unnamed empire. The Magistrate’s ignorance of this reality presents itself in farcical statements peppered throughout his dialogue, decaying the original impression we get of him.
In striving to achieve nuanced scrutiny of colonialism, Guerra gives little attention to the rest of the production. Barbarians is an adaptation with seemingly little adapting going on. The story lulls from dull plot point to dull plot point as if it were casually checking groceries off a shopping list; the drama is muted and ineffective. From the camerawork to the editing, there is nothing particularly striking from a visual perspective. And despite filming in Morocco, the dusty landscapes and mountainous terrain aren’t featured in memorable ways.
Misuse occurs often with Barbarians given that Rylance is a rare and specific talent playing a part many lesser actors could pull off. Robert Pattinson, who’s star seems to shine exponentially brighter these days, is relegated to a cameo role as another evil agent of the empire. Johnny Depp plays Joll with enough intimidation to pass. But he’s an actor in the unfortunate position of having his quirky filmography follow him wherever he goes. In his black Colonel’s uniform and mysterious sunglasses, you can almost hear Willy Wonka trying to burst through. Further, the ambiguity in regard to where Joll is committing his crimes and under which empire he serves only acts to distance the audience from the story.
Given Guerra’s stature and the excitement that often follows Rylance and Pattinson, it is understandable why people might have been excited for Waiting for the Barbarians. But if Barbarians is an exotic palace, then its enticing exterior would only be masking the void that exists behind its doors.