Pulitzer Prize-winning South African author J.M. Coetzee has adapted his 1980 novel – a cautionary tale about the sins of colonialism – into a mediocre movie.
The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) is in charge of a remote border outpost. A career diplomat, his mission is to protect the interests of the Empire against the ‘barbarians’ who wander the desert. After observing them for many years, he doesn’t view these peaceful nomadic people as any kind of threat.
Yet when there’s a minor theft, stiff-mannered Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) is dispatched by the Bureau of State Security to investigate. Smugly sadistic, he believes in “patience and pressure…pain is truth – and that will be end of it.”
Joll’s ‘interrogation’ methodology involves such extensive and merciless torture that the Minister, a kind and gentle man, is not only horrified but also disappointed and disillusioned.
Reaching out in sympathy to a persecuted young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who was crippled and blinded by Colonel Joll, the Magistrate offers her shelter and ritualistically bathes her wounds, establishing an emotional/sexual connection.
Eventually, the Magistrate offers to return her to her ‘tribe’ somewhere in the windswept desert wasteland. When he comes back to the outpost, he’s met by Joll’s sneering second-in-command, Warrant Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), who accuses him of being a traitor and tortures him accordingly.
Making his English language debut, Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent, Birds of Passage) and cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission, The Killing Fields) filmed in Morocco and Italy, lending an evocative cinematic authenticity to the bleakly generic drama.
FYI: After this, his first produced script, J.M. Coetzee also adapted his 2014 novel In the Heart of the Country but it has not yet been produced.
In English and Mongolian (with English subtitles) on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Waiting for the Barbarians is a sinister 6, a heavy-handed allegory that leaves no doubt about who the brutal barbarians really are.