Tag Archives: Ciro Guerra

They Are Us

Waiting for the Barbarians

by George Wolf

In the forty years since J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was first published, world events have continued to re-frame its thematic relevance.

Now, the novel finally has a big screen adaptation, amid a tumultuous political climate that again makes Coetzee’s tale feel especially prescient.

In a vaguely historical era within an unnamed “Empire,” the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) governs his desert outpost population through moral conviction and a delicate harmony with the land’s indigenous peoples.

Conversely, Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) – the soft spoken and sadistic head of state security – believes “pain is truth.” Joll arrives at the outpost to carry out random interrogations of the nomadic “barbarians” and learn the truth about an attack that he feels is imminent.

The Magistrate protests this view of the natives and the Empire’s directives, drawing the ire of Joll and later, his more overtly cruel lieutenant, officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson).

Coetzee’s debut screenplay adapts his own novel with delicate grace and an understated foreboding. But as relevant as the theme of creeping fascism remains, its bite is dulled by ambiguity and broadly-drawn metaphors.

The urge to speak more universally via an unspecified name, time and place is understandable, but it hampers the intimacy required to feel this warning in your gut.

The Oscar-winning Rylance (Bridge of Spies) almost makes up for this by himself, with a tremendous performance of quiet soul-searching. The film’s summer-to-the-following-autumn chapter headings paint the Magistrate as an obvious man for all seasons, and Rylance makes the Magistrate’s journey of fortitude and redemption feel almost biblical.

Depp and Pattinson provide worthy adversarial bookends. As Joll, Depp’s only eccentricity is a pair of sunglasses, but again he requires minimal screen time to carve an indelible figure.

Mandel is an even smaller role, but Pattinson makes him the eager realization of the ugliness Joll keeps bottled up. It’s another interesting choice for the gifted Pattinson, and another film that’s better for it.

Director Ciro Guerra utilizes exquisite cinematography from Chris Menges for a wonderful array of visuals, from beautifully expansive landscapes to artfully orchestrated interior stills. Though the film’s first act feels particularly forced, Guerra (Birds of Passage, Embrace of the Serpent) gives the remaining narrative – especially the Magistrate’s attempts at penance with the tortured Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan) – the room to effectively breathe.

Waiting for the Barbarians is not a film that will leave you guessing. But the decades-old message remains painfully vital, and in its quietest moments of subtlety, the film gives that message sufficient power.

Of a Feather

Birds of Passage

by Hope Madden

It’s difficult to imagine a fresh cartel story, a novel approach to the rise-and-fall arc of a self-made kingpin. And though scene after scene of Birds of Passage recalls that familiar structure, reminding you of what’s to come, you have never seen a film quite like this.

To begin with, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra set this narco-thriller and its tale of the corrupting lure of luxury deep inside Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu culture. And though anyone who’s seen Scarface can guess how tides may turn for Rapayet (Jose Acosta), the entrepreneur at the heart of this saga, the tragic difference in this film is the way the same insidious rot destined to eat Rapayet alive also seeps into and destroys the Wayuu culture itself.

Spanning twenty years, Birds of Passage opens with Rapayet participating in a ritual, beautiful and peculiar. He proposes, but his gift is inappropriate – it’s a luxury, a thing. He’s already begun to lose touch with his roots, and yet he is determined to earn the dowry and his bride, Zaida (Natalia Reyes).

Rapayet straddles two existences, never truly fitting into either. He’s the bridge for the two ecosystems to meet, but Acosta’s performance is intriguing. Hardly the ambitious firebrand who builds an empire, he’s quiet and perhaps even weak, bringing an end to his culture accidentally, like an infected animal who doesn’t know what he’s brought home with him.

David Gallego’s cinematography renders an absurdly beautiful desolation, colors splashing and popping against bleached sandy neutrals. Naturalistic performances from the entire cast aid in the film’s authentic feeling, but the poetry of the directors’ use of long shots and the singing voiceover give Birds of Passage the tone of folklore.

It’s a fitting balance —the story itself being both intimate and epic. Like Guerra’s Oscar-nominated Embrace the Serpent, this film again examines the moment when an indigenous people watch the death of their culture in favor of something more globally acknowledged and yet clearly inferior.