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The Brutal World of Waiting for the Barbarians

Johnny Depp and Mark Rylance play the enforcers of empire in the film based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel.


It’s not clear quite what era you’re in. The place seems dislocated in time, an imperial outpost somewhere in the desert, its manners and materials evidently imported from some far-off capital. It looks hot and hazy and a little quaint, as if everyone knows they’re playing their parts in a reassuring period piece—dusty pack animals moving slowly in the sun, staff murmuring to one another as they prepare food. Waiting for the Barbarians is an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel, in which time and place likewise remain unfixed and allegorical, with many important characters unnamed: the warrant officer, the magistrate, the girl. Yet despite its nostalgic trappings, the film, Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s English-language debut, soon reveals itself as timely in the extreme: This is a parable of the good cop.

You know it because into the very first scene sweeps an unmistakable bad cop: pale, smirking Johnny Depp in all-black military garb, complete with an ankle-length cape fit for the angel of death. His eyes are invisible behind small, round sunglasses, which are remarked on as a bizarre new contraption. You can’t tell what he’s thinking but you can bet it’s monstrous. Depp plays Colonel Joll, sent from imperial headquarters to inspect the settlement and investigate the activities of the nomadic people who live off the surrounding land. He is greeted by the magistrate (Mark Rylance), a courteous, sensitive man with a weather-beaten face, dressed head-to-toe in beige clothing that matches the landscape, as if he has devised an inoffensive way to coexist with it. Beside him Depp, raising his glasses to show off his unlined skin, looks comically sinister. Soon he’s explaining his methodical approach to interrogations, pausing as he goes, with the air of a connoisseur: “First lies. Then pressure. Then more lies, then more pressure. Then more lies, more pressure, and then comes the break. After the break, more pressure. And then at last, the truth.” He is confident he can identify that special tone of truth when he hears it, perhaps because truth here is instrumental—there comes a point when a subject will give up whatever Joll has decided to extract. “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.”

The desired truth in this case is that terrifying barbarian hordes have been preparing an assault on the settlement, and the Empire must send out its own expeditionary troops to subdue them, pushing the insurgent natives back into the mountains. It’s clear at once that the magistrate is in for degradations that will tax his mind to its limits, yet he holds fast to his British politeness. (Though no particular nation is mentioned, all the administrators, soldiers, and policemen lean with relish into mustache-twirling English enunciation.) Before long, he’s encountering the truth’s first casualties—Joll’s leavings, traumatized and half-dead people.

The tortures seem like metaphors. The town observes a string of prisoners, attached by a length of wire threaded through their jaws, so that they move delicately, watch one another, stay quiet. The magistrate takes one of the first victims to live with him in his rooms, a young woman with broken feet, her eyes burned with hot tongs so that she can only see around the edges, tilting her head. This is in part a film about not seeing what you can’t bear to see, no matter the contortions required to keep on not seeing it, and many shots reinforce that idea: The magistrate, trying to ascertain just what Joll’s team has done to some captured nomads, questions junior soldiers in the dark, turning his back to them; a small group crosses the desert in a sandstorm, the whole screen a blur of illegible forms.

The magistrate is, he announces early on, a man of no great ambition. Conquest isn’t his thing. He’ll be content with a legacy of “three lines in the imperial gazette” as someone who, with a nudge here and there, “kept the world on its course.” For most of his career, we understand, he has been able to do this without too much exertion, moral or physical, and so the arrival of the bad cops, lusting to police the perimeter and expand it, causes him shock and distress. As things get worse, he asks one of this new breed of torturers how he finds it possible to eat with friends and family after carrying out his tasks. But his own appetites are robust, and he acknowledges that the native people don’t enjoy his presence and haven’t consented to it. They are the ones stuck waiting, hoping to outlast the Empire.

The magistrate treats the young woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) with kindness, and, Christ-like, washes her injured feet. He even decides, at considerable risk to himself, to take her into the mountains to find someone who can help her back to what remains of her family. He examines her scars gently and presents himself as in every way different from her torturers. “You should tell me everything,” he says, when she hesitates to reveal what was done to her. “Tell them the truth,” he says when they encounter a group of men in the foothills, and she gives him a skeptical look in return. Why would he want her to tell her people what really happened on his watch? 

Coetzee’s novel is narrated by the magistrate, but here much of his soul-searching must be conveyed visually. The most disturbing thing about Joll’s sunglasses is that you can see your own reflection in them. Empire is as much a question of extraction, domination, and the ever-present threat of torture as it is of gentle cultivation, studying local artifacts, reading the classics, sipping a cocktail in the shade. The one rests on the other.

After returning from his mission in the desert, the magistrate has a precipitous fall, and his sometime fiefdom starts to decline along with him. He is arrested, robbed of his comforts, accused of treason, humiliated in the public square as he attempts to take a stand for reason and decency. There’s a quietly disorienting scene in which the disheveled magistrate appears in his own expropriated office before Joll and a younger colleague, played by Depp’s cinematic heir, Robert Pattinson. To see two generations of teen idol turned arthouse star, their striking bone structures repurposed for camp villainy, feels a bit like a joke about the barbarism at the heart of our civilization, how both crude and sophisticated are the tastes expressed by our collective unconscious. You can imagine the last of us recognizing Johnny Depp’s face, rather than Lady Liberty’s, poking out of the sandy rubble of the future.

The policemen mock the ruined magistrate for his moral vanity, for posing as “the one just man.” When he appeals to the rules, the law, he is sneered at: The rules can be altered or ignored at whim. “We have no record of you,” one of them tells him. And in these borderlands, anything can be removed from the record: “There is no history here.” In the book, Coetzee’s magistrate thinks that empire itself “has created the time of history … located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe.” Hunting down its scapegoats by day, “By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.”

Waiting for the Barbarians shares its title with the Cavafy poem that ends “those people were a kind of solution.” The so-called barbarians stand in for that other, lesser person—coded as foreign, threatening, criminal—who can be used to scare the populace and justify any authoritarian measures. This person doesn’t exist but needs to be invented. It’s easy to create an enemy at home or abroad, but not so easy to control the consequences. Rylance’s bemused face, the magistrate’s consciousness that he has aged without growing out of his central illusions, carries a familiar pathos. His oasis is now being run by brutes—bullying and killing, burning through resources rather than measuring them out slowly, judiciously. He doesn’t recognize himself in his leaders, and feels he can’t have chosen or enabled them. But we do produce our leaders, and our enforcers—our cops—as well.