Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for The Barbarians is one of those rare miniature masterpiece which get submerged in acres of anonymity and controversies. Whatever the reasons,the film is a casualty of criminal neglect. Guerra whose Embrace The Serpent in 2015 ushered in exceptional talent, is wedded to defining the desecration of cultural heritage by plunderers who call themselves colonists.
The epic film, starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Gana Bayarsaikhan, and Greta Scacchi, is set at a 19th century outpost of the British empire where a kindly overseer simply known as The Magistrate(Mark Rylance, that chameleon of an actor whom we never recognize as he looks different in every film) looks after soldiers.Things fall apart when soldiers arrive from outside to stir up an anarchic violence against the locals with catastrophic results.
Rylance, breathing life into every frame , is the epicenter of the drama. His character’s goodness nobility and kindness are the soul of the film. As we see the world around him become inhuman in their tyrannical passion to subjugate the native population, Rylance’s Magistrate shines like a beacon of hope.
A love story at the centre of the plot irrigates the theme of violent oppression. It starts when the Magistrate finds a local woman(Gana Bayarsaikhan) wandering in the outpost. Brutally tortured with her ankles broken the Magistrate escorts the girl into his sleeping quarters and nurses her back to health . He washes and medicates her ankles in what seems like a ritual of atonement on behalf of his entire oppressive race. This level of self-effacement and selfless devotion(the Magistrate never has sex with the girl even when she sleeps with him on the same bed) has never been in cinema.
Director Ciro Guerra captures the essence of Coetzee’s novel. The film has a deep resonant core of humanism and compassion rarely seen in cinema. It also contains passages of barbaric brutality juxtaposed with a surreal sublimity. Love and hatred are seen as strange bedfellows in this drama of devastating beauty. Rylance rules the narrative bringing to his ambivalent character both empathy and guilt without losing sight of his vulnerability and helplessness in the face of a colonial aggression that is unstoppably covetous.
This is a truly epic film not to be missed.
Image source: IMDb