Keep waiting for Waiting for the Barbarians

You might be tempted by the film “Waiting for the Barbarians.” I advise you not to try.

The film looks interesting, and it is interesting. But the trailer gives a misleading impression of a dramatic and eventful film that is actually as sleepy and tedious as the tiny frontier town it takes place in. It is an excessively minimalistic and unsatisfying story, and brutally bleak. There were good opportunities to rinse away a little of the surreality and unpleasantness with just a bit more dialogue and clarity (if not an actual sliver of hope), but the script seemed to make a point of refusing to do so, practically interrupting characters mid-thought to prevent them from revealing anything.

While there was much to appreciate in the film, the overall effect was miserable — a poor choice at any time, but especially in 2020.

Having suffered through it, I am noew determined to get something out of it, and I am keen on the ambiguity of the “barbarian” threat of the film. On its face, it’s about imperial douchebaggery, its agents (Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson) needlessly and cruelly provoking seemingly placid locals until they become the feared barbarian horde, an acute case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there’s another, more interesting layer: our protagonigist (Mark Rylance) is an affable, kind-hearted bureaucrat, “The Administrator,” a benevolent pawn of the empire, and we are encouraged to admire his compassion and principled condemnation of pointless violence. But it’s a trap! He is also naive, and cannot perceive any of the threat that has been exaggerated by his sadistic imperial masters, but not invented out of whole cloth. The truth is somewhere between their extremes, and much messier.

One could watch the whole thing choosing to believe that the inevitable disaster is entirely the consequence of excessive imperial aggression, but it’s more interesting if the empire isn’t entirely wrong, just overzealous and ham-handed, and if it has some virtues that we aren’t shown. If the peaceful natives are more bellicose and serious than we can see through the eyes of the kindly administrator, then we might notice that his naivete overlaps with a clueless condescension that is, in its own way, just as toxic as the jingoism of his superiors.

Whether any of this other perspective was intentional or not, it seemed to me like a story about two different types of imperial douchebaggery, which is a great idea. But if you’re intrigued, try the book, not the movie.