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Review: 'Waiting For The Barbarians' (2020) Dir. Ciro Guerra

Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, David Dencik, Greta Scacchi and Sam Reid


The English language directorial debut for Ciro Guerra tackles a novel by 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature winner J. M. Coetzee with an all-star headline cast...

The Magistrate (Rylance) of a frontier outpost oversees his soldiers and nomadic settlers with peace, keeping a human touch during a period of unrest and war.

The peace is shattered by the arrival of sadistic Colonel Joll (Depp) who looks down upon the Magistrate and his methods, conveying that he is in, in the eyes of the Empire, a traitor.

The Magistrate does what he can to stand against Joll and his accusations, fighting to stand for what is just and true and all the while fighting to save his own life from those who want to take it...

A gorgeous looking period wartime drama from Colombian director Ciro Guerra in his first English language offering. Known for films such as 'The Wind Journeys' and 'Birds of Passage', Guerra tackles many honest and reflective pieces, looking at honest portrayals of culture and society. Here, a similar thread is woven in a story about an unnamed frontier for an unknown Empire; akin to that of frontiers across the early 1900s in North Africa. 

Chris Menges channels his best 'Lawrence Of Arabia' when it comes to scope and style of how this looks, using the natural beauty of a sun-kissed Morocco as the main focus through the story. Sandstorms that batter everything and everyone it a relentless path, sun-baked deserts and rocky cliffs that dwarf the men on horseback who ride through, and solid military outposts in the middle of nowhere. The lack of CGI during such films only adds to the wonderful amount of practicality used.

A strong international cast fill out the roster for this authentic looking and sounding film, spearheaded by Mark Rylance's unnamed British Magistrate.

Rylance is a man doing his job as the manager of a small outpost, supporting both troops and native people living and working. His cool and calm tones only confirm how perfect he is in a role that requires a cool and calm attitude to any issues that arise, dealing with them in a peaceful, compassionate way for all involved. He overlooks cultural differences and the horrors brought about by war and conflict, and tries to see the humanity in everyone, be they soldier, prisoner or street beggar.

It's Johnny Depp as military Colonel Joll who arrives to upset the fragile peace with his narrow minded and often barbaric ways of keeping the nomad people in line to the Empire. Torture, depraved rations and a general stern-faced approach that evokes that of a Nazi warmonger. Depp's restrained presence and action the film certainly gives enough ammo for Rylance's Magistrate to come up against; two people in the same war but with very different methods and compassion towards the opposition. 

When it comes to the barbarians of the title, it's never clear just who the real barbarians are.

Robert Pattinson likewise is just as deplorable as Officer Mandel operating under Joll, and in turn portray this military might as nothing but, well, barbaric. Pattinson and Depp make a strong pair as the sort of military brutality and smugness that makes those apparently fighting the good fight easy to hate, especially when Rylance suffers for his act as a decent human. Mongol actress Gana Bayarsaikhan is also a key player in Rylance's journey, and she is a quiet beauty plagued by hardship and suffering.

It's a strong character story and one very much of the times when certain Empires ruled with iron-fists and prejudice, looking at nothing but skin colour and culture to decide who deserves to be colonised and driven away in the name of the rich and powerful. The story belongs to Rylance and Depp, giving solid performances as crackling polar opposites who fight with sharp words rather than rifles in what their individual idea of war means, but not without underestimating those who they are against.

It's the characters that add the power and conflict to this story, and when it slowly unfurls to it's conclusion, it's hard to decide just what side of the war the real barbarians were on in the first place

'Waiting For The Barbarians' is an Iervolino Entertainment / AMBI production

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