Waiting for the Barbarians




Mark Rylance shines in J.M. Coetzee’s adaptation of his own award-winning novel about colonial aggression. 

Waiting for the Barbarians 

A good man in Africa: Mark Rylance (left)


There are no Barbarians. There are a nomadic people with their traditions, their gifts and their secrets who inhabit a desert nation, as they have done for millennia. Then an imperial force moves into the area, setting up an outpost for an unnamed governing ‘Empire.’ The official in charge of this particular settlement – known as The Magistrate – is a man of letters, a historian, an archaeologist and an antiquarian. He studies the writings of the indigenous people, the better to understand their customs and their past. He is an enigmatic figure but is a modest and reasonable man intent on “keeping the world on its course.” Then the outpost is visited by a certain Colonel Joll, an outwardly civil, meticulously tailored officer who has been charged with “cleaning up the local administrations.” Requesting a private interview with a reputed sheep rustler and his ailing nephew – whom the Magistrate suspects is innocent – Joll has the old man blinded and tortured to death. If anybody is a Barbarian, it is the Colonel and his predetermined agenda…


Waiting for the Barbarians is the first English-language film from the Colombian director Ciro Guerra. Guerra, whose credits include the critically acclaimed Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage, has a knack for conjuring up otherworldly states. Here, he retains his mystical, leisurely grip on his narrative and comes armed with two major assets: the Oscar-winning English cinematographer Chris Menges (now 79) and the actor Mark Rylance. From the opening shot of a horse-drawn carriage dwarfed by the spectre of snow-blanketed mountains, the film asserts its visual pedigree. A citadel appears on the horizon and within we see the indigenous townsfolk going about their business of conveying water, threshing wheat and baking msemen. The camera then alights on Mark Rylance at his desk who, via a shaft of sunlight, is deciphering the symbol on an ancient coin. Few actors can do stillness as well as Rylance and he immediately brings this noble, cultivated man to life. His Magistrate is not a million miles from the self-possessed Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel he played in Bridge of Spies, or indeed his Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. Rylance is rarely bestowed with a leading role in a major film and it’s a joy to spend time with this hypnotic actor.


Such is Ciro Guerra’s standing, it is alleged that Johnny Depp contacted him in order to bag a role in his film. No doubt Guerra saw this as a huge compliment – and a marketing coup – but Depp’s collaboration does rather alter the tenor of the piece. While Depp contributes one of his finest – and most restrained – performances in recent memory (as Colonel Joll), his mere presence brings a different kind of baggage to the table. Moreover, we also have Robert Pattinson in a secondary role, further introducing a note of stellar congestion and reducing the integrity of the whole. Waiting for the Barbarians – adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his own 1980 novel – is a chilling indictment of colonial tyranny and casts its own shocking and exquisite spell. The addition of the Mongolian actress Gana Bayarsaikhan – as a nomad both crippled and partly blinded by Joll’s troops – goes some way to redress the balance and adds an enigmatic and intriguing edge to explaining the Magistrate’s psychological naiveté. All this contributes to Guerra’s transcendent parable but one can’t help but wonder how much more effective it might have been had it been filmed in his native language.




Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Greta Scacchi, David Dencik, Sam Reid, Harry Melling, Bill Milner, Gursed Dalkhsuren, Isabella Nefar.


Dir Ciro Guerra, Pro Michael Fitzgerald, Olga Segura, Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi, Screenplay J.M. Coetzee, Ph Chris Menges, Pro Des Crispian Sallis and Domenico Sica, Ed Jacopo Quadri, Music Giampiero Ambrosi, Costumes Carlo Poggioli.


Iervolino Entertainment/AMB-The Movie Partnership.

113 mins. Italy/USA. 2019. Rel: 7 September 2020. Available on iTunes. Cert. 15.