Johnny Depp Becomes an Agent of Torture in Allegorical ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

Waiting for the Barbarians” defines cinema as allegory. It is based on the classic novel by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee, who took the name from an allegorical poem by Constantine P. Cavafy. Both works invent scenarios where cities and rulers await the arrival of perceived threats, which are in reality conjured fears of foreigners or conquered peoples. This film version of the novel, directed by Colombia’s Ciro Guerra, with a screenplay by Coetzee himself, is so loyal to the idea that it rarely becomes anything more than just that.  

As in the novel, the movie is set in a fictional, arid “barbarian” land ruled by the “Empire.” At a city, the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) oversees what amounts to a colonial outpost. He is a kind man, reserved and lenient. Then to the city arrives Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who conveys suspicions of a supposed barbarian plan to wage war against the Empire. With little evidence to go on, Joll captures locals and tortures them in order to extract the kind of confessions he seeks. One of the barbarians tortured by Joll’s thugs, the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), is left blind and injured. When the Magistrate finds her on the street he brings her back to his home, caring for her and developing a strong attraction. But she is clearly unhappy. Again showing his open nature, the Magistrate agrees to take her back to her people. This will raise strong suspicions from his superiors about where his loyalties truly are.

At first glance, Ciro Guerra is a perfect choice to adapt Coetzee’s book. He is a filmmaker who basks in symbolism and allegory. His work in Colombia has a mythic quality, such as “Embrace the Serpent,” nominated for the 2015 Best Foreign Film Oscar. Last year he co-directed with Cristina Gallego “Birds of Passage,” an underrated, mystical gem about the rise of drug trafficking in Colombia’s rural indigenous communities. Separated into “Cantos,” the film used indigenous mysticism and the rise of the cartel culture, as powerful allegories about greed, generational changes, and the brutal intrusion of modernity. “Waiting for the Barbarians” is all of a fever dream, combining imagery, language and politics from various colonial ventures, particularly the British and French. Visually, Guerra’s style is well suited for this arid outpost. He is one of the current masters of the wide shot, capturing the vastness of a place, whether it be the Empire’s desert vistas, or the Magistrate’s sparse office, strewn with scrolls, books and artifacts. There are few close-ups, because the individuals are but players in a wider world. The tedious boredom of running this place comes across vividly. 

Curiously however, this film’s gifts are also its flaws. The ideas Coetzee conveys so strikingly with words translate to a film that is both passive, nearly stilted, but with great performances. Johnny Depp is a stoic menace, emerging from a carriage with dark glasses, barely cracking a smile, but delivering edicts with a milky voice. Ordering torture for his Colonel Joll is but a mere workplace duty. He never once loses his temper, he is aware he doesn’t have to, since he holds real power. Does he honestly hate the barbarians? Are they truly subhuman in his eyes? Maybe, or he merely conditions himself to keep the imperial wheel turning. Mark Rylance is superb as the Magistrate, playing a man ill-suited for his job. Deep down he is not a colonial overlord, and his affections for the Girl confirm this whole system is nonsense. Rylance seems almost fragile next to the true believers, such as Officer Mandel, played with subdued, psychotic venom by Robert Pattinson. Mandel is brought in to enforce Joll’s brutal sense of order. Pattinson acutely conveys the violent follower, who the Magistrate challenges to explain how he can even eat after torturing another human being. Coetzee published the novel in 1980, when South Africa faced increasing struggles against its entrenched apartheid regime. The questions these characters ask were fitting then, and are fitting now anywhere groups live in division, with one attempting to dominate the other via force.

If the allegories or ideas are stimulating, as cinema “Waiting for the Barbarians” feels like a movie essay. There is never the development of tension you find when good literature is turned into film drama. Coetzee’s work has made for good movies before, like 2008’s “Disgrace,” starring John Malkovich as a South African professor dealing with a post-apartheid society. Like some of the curious screenplays written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Coetzee literally transfers his material over into a movie, without adjusting it. As a result no one goes beyond being just a walking, talking idea. The world of the Empire has little richness or nuance to it, the characters never speak about anything other than what they are supposed to symbolize. The Magistrate, the deepest personality in the story, has no dimension, background or deeper thoughts in addition to his statements about colonialism. Even when it comes to his feelings for the Girl, there are intimate moments where he washes her feet, looks at her scars, which have promise, but generate little emotional pathos. This is why the film’s best scenes are the ones that become pure statements, as when the Magistrate berates Joll for being a monster, or mocks Mandel’s brainless inhumanity. The barbarians, fittingly, become mere figments in the desert. Their symbolism works, because racists and colonialists see the other as just that, a shadow to hate rather than understand.

For lovers of Coetzee’s book, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a welcome curiosity. It hits every beat accurately. There can be no claim that it is “better than the novel,” because it’s almost a mirror image, but lacking the stimulatory experience of reading and drinking in the words. Yet the words are well-delivered by a great cast, and vividly shot by a talented director. It just needs that extra flourish of real cinema. The ideas are powerful but the frames need the fire they can fuel.

Waiting for the Barbarians” releases Aug. 7 on VOD.