I’ve been watching every film in Johnny Depp’s filmography over the course of COVID-19 as an experiment for my podcast Depp Impact (Find on Spotify or Apple podcasts).
Waiting for the Barbarians, while completed in 2019, has been sitting on a shelf since then, acting (alongside yet to be released City of Lies) as a ghost on Johnny Depp’s IMDB filmography.
Unlike Depp’s recent output…this one is a quiet piece, with beautiful cinematography, and a pretty interesting performance. The movie asks who are the “barbarians” in the title? The “other” in the country we’re spending time in, or the shitty bourgeoise trying to control said country. Mark Rylance, as a nameless Magistrate, anchors the film with the sort of performance we’ve come to expect from him in the cinema. He’s just, sensitive, and emotive while staying steady and dependable. Depp is a pretty boy piece of shit named Colonel Joll, obsessed with his image and his dumb rules. In our current state of unrest regarding police, the idea of “apply pressure until the truth is released” is annoyingly relevant. Robert Pattinson shows up to sneer and be an asshole. Gana Bayarsaikhan, as “the girl” is a gorgeous and touching presence in a movie filled with white dudes being clueless or cruel.
It’s a beautifully shot film, but not a particularly interesting one. The first half of the movie is a slow procedural with a lot of good ol’ fashioned white people torturing a country they don’t understand. Director Ciro Guerra was clearly interested in the gruesome images of this story. Characters describe the terrible things that happened to them while sitting naked, covered in bruises and scars.
Based on South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel (he also wrote the screenplay) it seems the director and writer wanted to explore anti-colonization while leaning into stereotypes from an old school style of filmmaking. Yes, Mark Rylance is a “white savior” archetype, but in staying employed by colonizers, he is still part of the problem. Because Rylance is such a talented performer, he succeeds in painting a man trying to do good while still doing his job, but the morality is messy. He is a man looking to help, but by being an authority figure in this non-descript country in the first place, he is one of the conquerors. Watching him reckon with this, even in a small way, is satisfying and interesting.
I don’t know if director Guerra was fully prepared to take on this complicated dissonance, but the refusal to explore deeper makes this movie less than the sum of its parts. The location is as non-descript as the message.
The idea that officers come in and ask “why are these BARBARIANS SO MAD” as if the officers themselves aren’t the reason for the unrest is this movie’s form of gentrification.
At one point, our nameless Magistrate is having a conversation with a soldier from the Empire. They are talking about nomads from the village. Our Magistrate posits “The people here tell themselves be patient, one day these foreigners will pack up and leave.” The solider responds: “Frontier towns are the first line of the Empire”
As if to say, “we won’t be leaving any time soon.”
And when they finally do? Well. You can decide who the title “barbarians” are.