Waiting for the Barbarians Movie Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Pros: Starring Mark Rylance; the idea of ​​the novel, which they tried to transfer to the screen; desert landscapes Cons: the monotony of the film, behind which interesting observations are lost Waiting for the Barbarians

Drama genre
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Starring Mark Rylance (magistrate), Johnny Depp (Colonel Joll), Robert Pattinson (Colonel’s Assistant), Gana Bayarsaikan (blind girl), Greta Scacchi (May), David Dencik (clerk), Harry Melling (guard), etc.
Studio Iervolino Entertainment, Ithaca Pictures
Year of release 2020
IMDb website

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a film adaptation of the work of South African writer and Nobel Prize winner John Coetzee. Like the novel of the same name, the film takes place in a small town located on the border of the Empire. It is worth clarifying right away that the Empire is not a specific state, but rather an abstract designation of an imperious sovereign ruler who colonized lands that rightfully belonged to another people. The main enemies of the Empire are nomads called barbarians, in whom the leadership sees a potential threat.

Life on the border is calm and peaceful, so the village does not even have a small prison for criminals. City affairs are managed by a nameless hero who holds the position of magistrate (Mark Rylance). He will meet Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp), who has arrived to prevent the barbarian invasion. The colonel proves himself to be a master of interrogations, using sophisticated torture on the nomads he comes across. The magistrate, having become attached to one of the victims, suddenly begins to realize the true essence of the Empire’s regime.


Principal photography of the film took place in Italy, as well as in Morocco, which made it possible to capture panoramas of the sandy desert. There, among dusty roads and scorched buildings, director Ciro Guerra monotonously shows the established life of the colonialists. It is noteworthy that the clothes of the local residents are practical and simple, so the appearance of the colonel in full uniform is alarming even before he announces the essence of his visit.


Apart from pedantry in clothing and an eccentric manner of wearing sunglasses (which are more associated with films about freaks than with colonial drama), nothing else tells the viewer about the despotic nature of Johnny Depp’s character. Unfortunately, the actor stands like a stone in the frame, without evoking any special emotions for his hero. Robert Pattinson, who appears in the film much later, handles the negative role better.


The central character in the person of the magistrate is played by Mark Rylance (winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bridge of Spies). It awakens empathy and guides the viewer through the entire film, which ultimately still lacks outline. The monotony chosen by the director is manifested not only in the life of the townspeople, but also in every scene with Rylance. Therefore, when the film reaches a strong ending, the main idea of ​​​​the work no longer seems so important.


Perhaps it’s also in the script, which was adapted specifically for the film adaptation by the author of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” John Coetzee. In it, the writer left a considerable part of the book dialogues, ignoring the fact that the perception of the text may differ from the attempt to recreate it on the set.

Ultimately, this is the same important story about invaders proclaiming themselves rulers. The same frightening truth that the punitive forces need a named enemy in order to strengthen their positions. And still the same unsightly essence of torturers who do not feel a drop of guilt. Now not only the film, but also the real world speaks about this, so you may simply not have enough patience for the monotonous subtext of the film “Waiting for the Barbarians”.


a film for those who accept and perceive leisurely cinema

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