Credit: Venice International Film Festival
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

Waiting for the Barbarians | Ciro Guerra

August 13, 2020

Ciro Guerra opts for transcription over translation, and in doing so, loses the allegorical power of Coetzee’s novel.

Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a misguidedly straight-faced bore, a literary adaptation that fails to find the story in the text. To understand the depth of the film’s many problems, knowledge of the source material’s mode is essential. On its surface, the novel (written by South African author J.M. Coetzee) is a narratively minimalist and thematically austere critique of the colonialist/imperialist ethos, if not the specific machinations. An unnamed magistrate of the Empire, who idly passes his days governing a modest frontier outpost, finds his world upset by the arrival of Colonel Joll, a policeman of sorts who claims the nomadic “barbarians” are threatening war and undertakes a campaign of torture against them. Undercurrents of Kierkegaardian absurdism run through this story of a decent man’s naïveté confronting humanity’s potential for evil, and the resultant existentialist philosophy is communicated almost exclusively through interior ruminations. This first-person aesthetic lends the novel a rich expansiveness: the narrator, of course, cogitates on anti-colonialist fodder — the ironic notion of civility, the specious rhetoric of war-mongering, the contradictory instincts to both fear and romanticize the other. But Coetzee gives equal space to the personal disruptions that this moral awakening causes for his unnamed “hero.” Erotic longing once again becomes a mysterious force to him; and he is newly consumed by a desire to memorialize himself within history.

Coetzee’s decision to render the hero, conflict, and setting with a certain anonymity gives the novel a necessary universality, and the film at first suggests that it will build off this rudiment: the setting and imperial garb is distinctly North African (it was filmed in Morocco), while the nomadic roles are played by performers of Asiatic descent (the female lead is played by Mongolian actress-model Gana Bayarsaikhan), a gambit that welcomingly untethers the film from any specific context. It’s a bit baffling, then, to find that Coetzee also penned this script — so devoid is it of any of the book’s exquisite nuance. The author was inspired by Constantine Cavafy’s 1894 poem of the same name, which explicates the necessity of enemies for any ruling body, as well as by the atrocities perpetrated under South African apartheid policies, but neither the intellectual wit of the former nor the moral urgency of the latter find their way into this passionless adaptation. In fact, it’s a stretch to call this an adaptation all: though most of dialogue is lifted directly from the novel, all subtext is abandoned in favor of a checklist of plot points and character confrontations.

It’s fair to wonder if Coetzee may have been too close to the material to exact a proper translation — his novel Disgrace embraced a similarly broad allegorical framework, and the successful film version was adapted by a different writer — but this is also material that necessitates a full cinematic reinterpretation. Blame must then fall to Guerra, and his vision of Waiting for the Barbarians should be considered a foundational text in mismanaging tone. Problems begin with the performances he coaxes from his cast — Mark Rylance plays the magistrate with a doe-eyed obviousness; Robert Pattinson makes the most of his role as a glib, archly villainous officer, but contrasts so sharply to Rylance’s lamblike innocence that he becomes merely comical; while Johnny Depp, so distractingly cast as Colonel Joll, the film’s ostensible nucleus of evil, should never have been cast at all. Visually, Guerra manages to capture a few gorgeous vistas — the sky’s bright cloudless blue meeting the earthen ochre of the desert or the star-flecked black-purple of midnight — but is otherwise content to rely on shots of grey and dust exteriors and garish costumes that look more like cosplay when pitched against the production’s modest sets. The film’s pacing is glacial, but somehow manages to lose the most substantive psychological elements of a dense but otherwise economical work, even excising an ideologically foundational conversation between the magistrate and Joll, while still bloating to almost two hours.

All told, it is Guerra’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to even approximate the novel’s headier, reflective aesthetic that dooms this adaptation. Without some expression of the magistrate’s guiding dialogue, sometimes rhapsodic and sometimes despairing, the novel’s deep humanity is lost, and what remains is a moral confrontation with about as much subtlety as a superhero flick. Ben Wheatley faced a similar problem in adapting J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: conforming to stridently literalist interpretations of metaphorical or allegorical material results only in unintended and discordant comedy. It’s not hard to understand why the novel’s rich thematic terrain appealed to Guerra — Waiting for the Barbarians functions as the final piece of an anti-colonialist triptych. Where Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage respectively focused on religious and capitalist imperialism, the director’s latest is a more general and precursive distillation of that expansionist spirit. But in misunderstanding the essential power of Coetzee’s material and opting for transcription over translation, the director has fashioned a lifeless dud from the novel’s most disposable elements.