No Sheltering Sky in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

Mark Rylance is punished by Johnny Depp in a nameless desert place.

How long can an allegory hold the weight of its meanings and allusions? Forty years after the publication of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians, the Nobel prize-winning author has adapted his own book into a feature film. In 1980, the South African writer asked and answered the question, “Who are the actual barbarians in a colonized country?” When Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) strides into The Magistrate’s (Mark Rylance) desert outpost, his dark uniform and forbidding expression visually correspond with the idea of bureaucratic cruelty. 

But Waiting for the Barbarians isn’t Depp’s film. He and Robert Pattinson, another famous name on the marquee, are supporting characters. We see them both behaving like brutes but only briefly. Rylance, who won an Academy Award for Bridge of Spies (2015), is in every scene. His trademark — perfectly realized as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall — is an artful reticence. The ever-watchful actor contains wariness, withholding his trust and his stratagems, while trying to maintain his earned and established sense of privilege in a hostile workplace. 

Coetzee’s most recent novels, a trilogy, circle abstractly, and allegorically, around the life of Jesus Christ. I read the first one, The Childhood of Jesus (2013), and recognized a similar, nameless place where Barbarians is set. The liminal spaces that the author invents allow a great deal of room for the reader to imagine their own versions of heaven, limbo, and hell. Without the specificity of time and geography, this desert outpost is at once a real place, dusted over by sand storms, and a symbolic one. 

In his screenplay, Coetzee revisits his preoccupation with the life of Jesus and projects it upon The Magistrate (who remains nameless). He is a Christ-like figure who’s portrayed as a saintly sinner. The Magistrate has been overseeing his post for so many years that, instead of identifying with his regiment and his country of origin, he has come to sympathize and identify with the so-called “barbarians.” Where Joll sees an imminent threat, The Magistrate’s become an amateur historian, studying the artifacts, coins and runes found on the other side of his outpost’s gates and walls.      

Unmarried, it’s implied that he also sleeps with many of the local women. When he comes across a barbarian woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) in town who Colonel Joll has interrogated and tortured, The Magistrate nurses her back to health and falls in love with her. His love is the start of his undoing. After she is well enough to walk again, the woman wants to return to her home. When The Magistrate assembles a caravan to accompany her through the harsh terrain, Joll sees it as an act of betrayal. Love, however misguided in its origins, cannot be explained or accounted for in Joll’s court of military laws. 

What particularly dooms The Magistrate is that he overestimates the power of his long-standing position. At the end of several scenes, the camera lingers on the outpost’s flag. There’s an illustration (of some angry animal) on it that flaps in the relentless wind. It symbolizes nothing but itself hanging above this desolate place. Neither the ideals represented by the flag, nor The Magistrate himself, hold any real authority. As Depp’s Colonel Joll puts it, “Pain is truth.” The military’s ability to inflict pain is the sole authority to which everyone bows down.

When Rylance, no longer reticent, stands up for the barbarians and for himself, the actor opens himself up to that pain. His expression of profound puzzlement slowly turns into a truth. You can read the thought that’s running through his mind, “The Magistrate is disgraced.” But by the conclusion of the film, Rylance miraculously finds some measure of grace in his character’s terrible fall.

Waiting for the Barbarians is now streaming online.

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