Waiting for the Barbarians
An Ingenious Style to Comment on Imperialism is Watered Down with a Shallow Narrative
Imperialism is a subject that is hard to encapsulate or explore on screen since its effects are so wide-ranging. There have been successful responses to it, such as the African cinematic movements in the 1970s and 1980s helmed by Souleymane Cissé and Ousmane Sembene. To have a progressive view of imperialism in film by taking the perspective of the colonizers, however, is a much harder feat to pull off. Ambitious Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra decided to take it on by adapting the “Waiting for the Barbarians” novel.
Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) is the story of a Magistrate (Mark Rylance) of a border settlement of some unknown empire in the 19th century. No locations or nations are ever named, helping keep with the symbolism of the film’s themes. The Magistrate sees various aspects of imperialism play out, such as the cruel Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) carrying out violent reprisals on the locals, or the scarred recuperation of a vagabond girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), and the attitudes of his own men towards his handling of certain events.
As with many of Guerra’s films, the film does not take on a typical narrative, choosing to weave a structure more akin to a surrealist film, yet dealing with very real aspects of the world. Guerra’s acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Embrace the Serpent (2015) utilized this style to show the corruption of nature by European explorers in South America. In his most recent, Birds of Passage (2018), Guerra took on the heavily exploited drug cartel subject and imbued it with a new spirit and perspective using this distinct style. The director brings his known restraint to Waiting for the Barbarians as well; there is scant dialogue, with Guerra choosing to tell his story visually with strong actors whenever he can. The film can boast of an incredibly talented cast, from the brilliant Rylance, to the subtle Bayarsaikhan, and the relishing Depp and Robert Pattinson, who plays another cruel military officer.
The genius of the novel and its adaptation in the film, is in the vague setting that the story is given. The colonizers are a mix of Americans and Brits, while the indigenous people have a ranging style and casting of middle eastern and southern and eastern Asian. This helps bring about the intended symbolism of the global impact that the age of imperialism had. How it doesn’t matter where it happened as long as the cruelties and contradictions did happen.
The Magistrate is put forth as a very involved and delicate character, who is curious and sympathetic of the local population. This character is common in many Western films dealing with imperialism, as if their empathy helps excuse the horrors perpetrated by other compatriots. However, Guerra is able to play around a bit more with this psychology. The Magistrate seems to play to the clichés of many of the “imperialist excusing” films such as Dances with Wolves (1990) or Even the Rain (2010) where the pity on the subjected people is enough to make Western viewers feel good about themselves by the time the credits roll. The Magistrate seems to be playing this typical role, by wanting to care for the vagabond girl he finds, nursing her to health and seeking to bring justice for her. However, Guerra smartly shows how this approach seems to be capricious in the Magistrate, as he seeks absolution for himself and Western viewers when in fact the film is clearly framing this act as cringe-worthy. Waiting for the Barbarians later comments on this directly, stating how this pity and care was making things worse by giving local subjects confusing and contradicting two sided coins of cruel occupiers who also save you from their own atrocities. It makes for a convincing argument that the best way to solve imperialism is not for occupying Westerner’s to do good acts, but to simply get out of there in the first place.
In an ideological sense, Waiting for the Barbarians is very successful in putting forth its points. Guerra achieves some very effective symbolism, which helps put across the many complex contradictions that the spectrum of imperialism had on subjected peoples. However, the film begins to falter in giving its actual narrative and structure weight. When one strips away the symbolisms, the resulting story and characters are not very involving. Both Embrace the Serpent and Birds of Passage had more interesting character arcs, whereas The Magistrate and his supporting characters seem more like devices to get Guerra’s point across. Despite some very strong performances, particularly from Rylance in the lead role, they aren’t able to give a more personal depth to the entire drama at the center of the film.
In the end, Waiting for the Barbarians proves to be an enthralling piece to analyze for its ideological assertions and methods for putting across its ideas. However, as a larger narrative piece and cinematic story it isn’t able to bring about much personal or emotional weight. Unfortunately, this robs the film of the impassioned impact it could have had by showcasing a tragedy or plight with characters that viewers latched on to. Instead, we end up having an academically fascinating but emotionally cold end product.