Review by Sean Boelman
Bleak films can be difficult to get through at times, but can be a worthy watch as long as they are done in a way that is interesting. Unfortunately, Ciro Guerra’s English-language debut Waiting for the Barbarians does not have that much-needed momentum, resulting in a movie that is oppressively dark and dull.
The film follows a magistrate working at a remote outpost who begins to question his loyalty when he helps a young native woman in her rehabilitation. Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his own novel, this is a morally-high war story that has great intentions, but it fails to deliver its message in a way that is particularly cinematic.
For an hour and fifty-two minutes, the narrative crawls along at a snail’s pace. The structure is built more like a series of scenes rather than an interconnected arc, and while there are some of those moments that are excellent, others seem to drag on and on. This is particularly the case with the more brutal torture sequences that are meant to elicit horror but instead cause boredom.
There is something here about finding hope and goodness even in the darkest corners of humanity, but this message is painfully obvious and has been done many times before (and more effectively). As a result, audiences are sitting through nearly two hours of didacticism about something they have likely already heard.
And perhaps due to the fragmented nature of the movie, the character development is extremely lackluster. Even the unnamed magistrate who serves as the audience’s lens to all of these atrocities feels poorly-written, although he is the only likable character. The empirical officers that are the antagonists of the film are cartoonishly evil.
As always, Mark Rylance gives a solid performance in his leading role, although the material restricts his turn to being rather one-note. Apart from a handful of scenes, Rylance is meant to look somber and depressed. Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson round out the lead cast, although their performances are both far too big to fit within the script.
Admittedly, the movie does feature some pretty stunning visuals that take advantage of the Moroccan locale in which it was shot, but even great scenery can’t save the film from being overwhelmingly desolate. Giampiero Ambrosi’s score is good but also not utilized to its maximum potential.
Despite having a truly exciting filmmaker at the helm, Waiting for the Barbarians is a remarkably slow watch. For those who don’t mind watching a feature full of despair and brutality with very little movement, this may be a more pleasant experience.
Waiting for the Barbarians hits VOD on August 7.