On paper, Waiting for the Barbarians seems like a noble cause. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Nobel Prize recipient, J.M. Coetzee, this anti-colonialism story is point-blank endearing thematically. With Colombian director, Ciro Guerra whose anti-colonialism work, Embrace the Serpent, got nominated in the 88th Academy Awards and Hollywood A-listers, including Oscar winner, Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), in the leading role, it’s almost safe to say the formula should have worked. And yet, the end-product staggers between the blockbuster ambition and its contemplative nature.
Rylance portrays a majestic character known only as The Magistrate, administering a desert outpost under a fictional empire. From the movie’s pregnant dialogues and pertinent information about the geopolitical backstories, it’s clear that the empire is an authoritarian regime colonizing the area. The Magistrate acts as a bridge between the native populations and the regime; but, at his behest, the outpost maintains peaceful relationship with the native; save for minor differences. The Magistrate acts upon compassion; Rylance’s sympathetic eyes bring out such a persona effortlessly and that’s one of this movie’s clear-cut edges.
When the ignorant military leader, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and, afterwards, his lackey, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) arrive, the relatively peaceful situation comes to an end. Joll, with almost symmetrical owl sunglasses, has a penchant for sadism and acts mostly out of it. Mandel is a lackluster acting leader, but his incompetence threatens to end the peace treaty for real. That’s where a spark of rebellion is ignited and The Magistrate has to finally decide which side he will choose. As much as it’s the clearest war between good and evil, his stance will not be something to predict; but, rather, to ponder about.
Coetzee, transliterating his own novel into the screenplay, vaguely decides to make this a straightforward fable with almost explicit commentary to the former British Empire that colonized his home country, South Africa. The outpost, built strongly amidst the desert, is a see-through symbolism of apartheid. Guerra decides to make the fable more political than fantastic; therefore, action bravura is not merely the main course. Consequently, Waiting for the Barbarians takes all the necessary time to dabble in this political element of the story, than in the fantastic element, just to make sure that the message is conveyed.
Rylance takes no effort in portraying the saintly figure of The Magistrate, even when his character is prone to white savior traits. Depp, on the other hand, is the embodiment of ignorance and the malicious personification of white supremacist. His one-dimensional character is menacing even when peculiar sunglasses conceal his harrowing gaze. One dimensional is maybe the most accurate depiction of every character in this story. Even when the story staggers with sluggish pacing, the characters can never break the dimension. The saint is good, the sinners are evil; and, ironically, the barbarians are not the story’s alleged barbarians. This is a little surprising since the story barely explodes in scale.
Guerra’s direction focuses on making Rylance’s character a saintly tool to deliver the story’s message. The challenges are clearly the pacing, which only rewards those patient enough to follow through, and the predictability that probably steers objections since Waiting for the Barbarians is a drama through and through. Only the magnificent camera work by Oscar-winning cinematographer, Chris Manges (The Mission, The Killing Fields), spare you some moments with exquisite shots of the desert and the outpost—making it a humane place to live.
Waiting for the Barbarians was originally intended for a theatrical release. However, due to the pandemic, it is finally slated for VOD release starting from 7 August 2020. For Indonesia, the movie was released at the same day as the international date and is streaming exclusively on Bioskop Exclusive Mola TV, a special program dedicated to movie buffs by Mola TV.
Famously known as the official broadcaster for English Premier League, Mola TV also streams high-quality international movies and television series, including the award-darling serial like Killing Eve; Oscar-winning movies like Million Dollar Baby and Zero Dark Thirty; and cult classics, like Donnie Darko. Currently, Mola TV boasts “Paket Anak Indonesia” subscription package for only IDR 12,500 for a month with multiple and accessible payment methods, even for those who do not own credit card. The subscription process takes less than 5 minutes and up you go for a ride.