The time feels right for a film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” inasmuch as the undertaking is possible at all. Nearly 40 years after its publication, the South African writer’s slim but scorching allegory for imperialist denial and defeat feels grimly pertinent to a current political milieu marked by the hubris of white supremacy. Colombian director Ciro Guerra, meanwhile, is a canny choice of filmmaker to take on the project, scripted by Coetzee himself in the Nobel laureate’s first stab at screenwriting: Guerra’s 2015 breakout film “Embrace of the Serpent” was an anti-colonialist odyssey of eerie, head-scrambling power, with a command of burrowing metaphor and Conradian brink-of-madness atmosphere very much worthy of Coetzee’s novel.
If the across-continents meeting of these two artists — aptly enough, for a story itself set in an indeterminate desert nation that could exist in many a place and time — doesn’t quite bring out the best in either man, that’s not entirely surprising: Coetzee’s novel, with its measured, interiorized voice and sparse, incrementally devastating narrative, was never an obvious fit for film treatment. After a stiffly mannered, overwritten first act, however, “Waiting for the Barbarians” gradually gains in poetry and power, while Mark Rylance’s lead performance, as a liberal-minded colonial official undermined and overwhelmed by his tyrannical superiors, gives proceedings a quiet but firm moral core. For arthouse distributors, villainous supporting turns by Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson will bolster the kerb appeal of a film likely to divide critics at some cost to its commercial prospects.
Having to visually articulate the atmospheric but geographically elusive Somewhereland of Coetzee’s novel is a tricky hurdle to clear. The mythic ambiguity of the novel’s scene-setting — which evoked a kind of looking-glass version of Apartheid-era South Africa when it was published — is broken by the distracting jumble of geographic elements in this Italian-led international co-production. A frontier territory of a nameless Empire, the small, sunburnt village over which the likewise unnamed Magistrate (Rylance) has softly applied dominion appears to be in the North African desert (sure enough, much of the shooting took place in Morocco), yet the indigenous “barbarians” of the title are native-speaking Mongolians. A lot of subliminal secondary history has to be put out of mind before the film’s own world-building can take hold.
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In any event, the Magistrate’s peaceful administration is rudely disrupted by a visit from Colonel Joll (Depp), a vindictive, reactionary officer from the Third Bureau, a secret-service branch of the Empire, sent to investigate the possibility of an attack by indigenous forces. The Magistrate sees no risk if they continue to live passively; Joll’s idea of proactive defense, on the other hand, is to lead a notional fact-finding expedition into the desert, returning with a captive band of “barbarians” to imprison and torture. When Joll and his minions depart as summarily as they swept in, the Magistrate is left to deal with the fallout of vicious war crimes in which he had no say, though he’s hardly exempt from charges of colonial complicity — least of all when he falls for an abused, semi-blinded indigenous woman (a deeply affecting Gana Bayarsaikhan) and finds himself torn between freeing her and making her his property.
This is complex, richly allusive material rife with thorny political conflicts and hypocrisies, entwined around an unspoken emotional baseline of desolate loneliness and guilt — though only some of these subtleties come through in Guerra and Coetzee’s somewhat muted, deliberate screen treatment. Coetzee’s adaptation is particularly wordy and stilted in the early going, translating a little too much of the novel’s drily perceptive narration into declamatory, on-the-nose dialogue — for which Guerra, in his first English-language project, doesn’t exhibit much of an ear. Rylance, never the wrong man to cast if you’re after shambling, compromised integrity, finds the rhythm eventually; Depp is required to work a narrower icy-droll range, often concealed behind steampunk-style sunglasses. (Carlo Poggioli’s sharply tailored costumes, inspired by multiple eras of fascist rule, are among the film’s visual pleasures.)
Yet the film, divided into four seasonal chapters, takes a welcome breath once airless matters of bureaucracy are set aside and the Magistrate’s inner life comes to the fore. Later, a reparative journey into the unforgiving desert, with the Magistrate’s reluctant lover in tow, finds Guerra far more in his element, largely eschewing dialogue for gesture and delirious environmental menace. Working in lush, hot-to-the-touch widescreen, veteran cinematographer Chris Menges captures long human shadows on rippling caramel dunes in compositions that carry more symbolic commentary — must the Empire impose itself on every landscape? — than a lot of the film’s drier verbiage.
From here on out, “Waiting for the Barbarians” steadily accrues a grave, violent anger over encroaching systems of oppression that proves infectiously troubling and enraging, as Guerra’s filmmaking gets wiser to tacit details. As Joll and the Third Bureau return with aggressive reinforcements — including a foppishly snarling Pattinson — a host of grotesque human violations are vividly presented in the foreground, while in the background, books progressively vanish from shelves without notice or commentary. (There’s no place for intellect in white supremacy, after all.) Yet this flawed film also slowly sheds its words to ever more stirring effect, toward a finale that largely gazes upon colonial carnage in stunned silence, as despots are disarmed, soldiers become scarecrows, and a teasing final shot — in the film’s most provocative break from Coetzee’s text — points to further cycles of conflict.