Savina Petkova on Ciro Guerra’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (2019)
Such is the rhetorical question that rolls out the mouth of a sadistic official, its underlying banality of evil affirmed by his sturdy posture and the novelty of inhuman pitch-black sunglasses. Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) embodies every virtue held dear by the unnamed ‘Empire’, as he makes his visit to its periphery to investigate the dangers of a potential invasion. Ciro Guerra’s first English-language feature zooms into the nature of imperialism with a sharp, critical lens, with an ambition to transform J.M. Coetzee’s novel into a spectacle of anti-colonialist despair. Instead, the film settles for a simplistic and dissatisfying representation stuck between “white saviour complex” and masochistic “white guilt”, losing its didactic power and missing all its chances to tell a semi-fictional tale grippingly.
If you’ve had the pleasure of encountering Constantinos Cavafy’s poem “Waiting For the Barbarians“, you might guess the whole plot of Guerra’s film, as well as its moral. What Cavafy delivers in a punchline is dragged through the whole screen time, revealed in its very beginning and thus made tedious to the very end. Needless to say, the film does not aspire to a cathartic experience (and that’s completely fine) but its black-and-white moral code is soon solidified when even the ‘good’ characters turn out to be equally ‘bad’, thus amounting to a bleak, hopeless picture of humanity.
That would make a perfect baseline for a critical stance yet Waiting for the Barbarians fails to offer a transformative examination, which has been at political and ethical stake in Guerra’s previous works Embrace of the Serpent / El abrazo de la serpiente (2015) and Birds of Passage / Pájaros de verano (2018). Even if Waiting For the Barbarians does exhume a visceral response to examples of colonialist violence, its moral thrust is immobilised when representing a spectacle of torture. Rather, oral descriptions of punitive methods needed to “probe for the truth”, as the Colonel calls it, cause more distress than their visualisation if it only is for the unflinching face and impenetrable stare of Depp’s Joll. His sunglasses, a technological novelty, allegorically deny him any possible glance of empathy. His credo includes physical and mental torture that would provide a false reality to the hysterical notion of being attacked by barbarians. As it becomes apparent very early in the film, the governmental lead is dedicated to manufacturing a useful phantasmagorical enemy and the nomad tribes at the edge of the Empire happen to be the sacrificial lamb.
This attitude of scapegoat violence is subject to rightful criticism. However, the film aligns its pace largely with that of the local Magistrate (Mark Rylance), whose sense of belonging is highlighted by numerous sequences of ethnographic attention to daily life at the market, archaeological reverence to old language artefacts, and even blissful stargazing. As a man who worships the wonders of the desert, he is prone to idolisation and even worse—fetishisation. When a beautiful but nameless woman (outstanding perseverance by Gana Bayarsaikhan) is found begging in front of the official chambers, the Magistrate’s heart is so full of sympathy that it almost burst to pieces as he begs her to stay with him, sharing the comforts of roof and fire.
The audience will have the opportunity to observe a ritualistic washing of the nomad girls’ feet on two separate occasions, as the camera locks these gentle touches into close-ups and reveals a blissfully sleeping Magistrate and a laughing Girl once the frame encapsulates the whole room again. While these sequences oscillate between apologetic worshipping and outright absurdity, its moral implications remain, before all, unnerving. It seems the film is unable to strike a clean cut between the Other as equal and the Other as a fetish. If ethical pessimism was the aim Guerra was striving for, he achieves it at the expense of transformative potential and this blade feels surprisingly blunt.
Even if the film opts for psychological literacy, it proliferates an unwelcome suffocating feeling, as the camera snatches every little wrinkle on the Magistrate’s ageing face — the same colour as the sandy dunes of the desert. Compiling a non-glazed image of the desert colony, Waiting for the Barbarians visually compliments its flat narrative, as the long days cast deep shadows but the world appears two-dimensional. Without ever tightening its grip, Guerra’s film misses the opportunity to engage and provoke a meditative, or even agitated, state; to question and rephrase its questions. Such stasis can provide a time and space for reflection, yet here it takes a formidable turn, paralysing the viewer in an ever-wrong zone of cultural relativism. Revisiting the colonial past on film, and reporting back that we, and no one else, are the barbarians, is by now a banal point and no longer enough for those looking to bypass the moral binary that forged Empire in blood and compelled the designation “barbarian” in the first place.
Waiting for the Barbarians as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival.