Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interesting sort of film. The poster has Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, and Mark Rylance in 19th century French-style military clothing. They all look tense, like they’re about to be in a battle together – presumably with the aforementioned barbarians. Rylance looks like a grizzled General; Depp looks like a senior officer – perhaps a Major or Colonel? – while Pattinson looks the model of a young Lieutenant or Captain. Looks good. How will it all play out?

Well, I think the first thing to say is the film itself is nothing like the expectation. Rylance is ‘the Magistrate’ who administers a kind of outpost/town on the desert frontiers of an Empire which again, from the uniforms, seems French but is actually an unnamed/made-up Empire. The location of this outpost seems to be Mongolia, based on the terrain and the locals, but again isn’t actually named.

Rylance is a passive sort of peacekeeper in charge of some army personnel at the outpost and doesn’t have any issue with the natives of the land they are in. The outpost gates are always open. As he puts it, the town does its thing, and ‘the barbarians’ do theirs. He even tells a story at one stage that the natives expect to outlast the Empire, which they assume will just pull up stumps and leave one day.

Enter Johnny Depp, a senior officer in the military police. He quizzes the Magistrate on how things are going, and seems quite concerned that the frontier needs to be well patrolled and policed and that ‘the barbarians’ are actually a serious problem, when the audience can see they haven’t been.

Depp proceeds to rough up the locals, captures some, interrogates them extremely brutally and one even dies. His job done – for the moment – he then leaves the Magistrate to look after the mess.

What follows is a personal journey for the Magistrate and his relationship with one particular barbarian. To say more enters spoiler territory, but I can assure you this is an intriguing road to go down and a comment on real-life empires that have stretched out into far-flung outposts like this where some have tried to understand the locals, but most haven’t. Battles and wars have been fought and, in time, just as the barbarians said, sometimes the empires will leave. Not always, of course.

This is a very slow, quiet, almost meditative film. It’s not an action film by any stretch. It features people being good to one another and people being horrible to one another. It’s a really interesting film to watch. By the time the credits rolled I just said in my chair and thought about it for awhile.

Yes, it’s ‘that’ kind of film. It won’t make anyone’s top 10 or 20 films, but it’s certainly a film that I think will be on the lips of anyone who’s seen it, when asked, “What’s an off-the-beaten track kind of film to watch this weekend? Something that will make me think. Something that no one talks about?”

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