What constitutes Italian cinema? Marco Bellochio’s The Traitor is so fundamentally Italian that its audience needs familiarity with the country’s history to get to the bottom of its dense text. Pietro Marcello’s remarkable Martin Eden took a novel that seemed fundamentally North American, and imbued it with a love for Italian culture that shifts the story’s entire soul. Yet one of the year’s most high profile Italian productions, Waiting for the Barbarians, would seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with the country. Filtering the British Empire’s colonisation of a nameless land through the eyes of the one white man who won’t take things lying down, this adaptation of the J.M. Coetzee novel is a pandering, patronising mess that wastes just about every element in its arsenal.
Ciro Guerra’s career seems to be on a clear downward trajectory. If the director’s M.O. is shifting stories of Columbia’s troubled colonial history into a style recognisable to western art-house audiences, then we have travelled from Embrace of the Serpent’s Herzogian myth (2015) to Birds of Passage’s mafia chronicle (2018) to Waiting for the Barbarians, a type of Oscar-bait adaptation that one assumed had gone out with Miramax. Rylance plays a magistrate who looks after a fort town on the edge of “The Empire.” It’s ethnic vagueness at first suggests this may be a fantasy tale, although it comes more and more to resemble the plains of Mongolia (which were vividly depicted this year in Wang Quan’an’s Öndög). The arrival of Johnny Depp’s villainous Colonel Joll brings an end to the region’s era of peace. He’s been sent by The Empire on rumours of an invasion by “barbarians,” who he provokes by traveling to the plains with his men to kidnap and torture a lot of nomadic tribespeople. Watching Depp, one thinks of the classical mode of Italian production, recently sent up in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where international actors, cast for their look, would speak their dialogue in native tongue and then be dubbed. One pictures the poor Italian actor, brought in to mimic Depp’s lethargic David Bowie impression, giving it more life than the A-list, £50,000-a-month-on-red-wine actor can summon.
Colonel Joll’s violence — communicated through blank expressions, that frazzled voice, and a pair of dark sunglasses — is lazily caricatured as “what we have here is failure to communicate” pantomime antagonism, a far cry from George Orwell’s description of colonialist behaviour as “the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East.” Nonetheless, Depp’s behaviour establishes a dichotomy that the film spends two hours on. Two colonisers: one wants the natives dead, the hero is happy to just have them working for him.
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If this ethical condescension isn’t enough, it’s about to go a little more Green Book (2018), as Rylance’s white saviour storyline becomes crystalised in his relationship with an indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan). Maimed and sleeping on the town’s streets since Colonel Joll’s roguery, she is taken in by Rylance’s Magistrate, who continuously washes her feet in an obvious biblical allusion that doesn’t get smarter the more often Guerra returns to it. The Magistrate’s do-gooder attitude is sanctified by a storyline that places his pain and sacrifice first, through Rylance’s constant monologues and the camera’s choice to see the story from his eyes. The character’s struggle to save indigenous people is presented as the only strategy for these noble savages to find absolution. When the Magistrate travels afield in search of help from a gang of barbarians, they rob him and ride away laughing. The two modes of life are colonialism or barbarism, and Rylance’s benevolent cultural suppression of the latter begets the former. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the natives need love, but they also need an education, to suppress their danger.
The datedness of the novel’s politics are swallowed by Guerra, who stages scenes with a typical stillness that, filled with croaky theatrical performances, becomes a non-style worthy of bad prestige TV. Robert Pattinson appears in a glorified cameo role as Depp’s right hand man, who shows up to help torture the natives. He reserves his most visceral hatred for the Magistrate, shaking with rage in an interrogation scene as Rylance’s character attempts to explain himself. Guerra makes the curious choice of having Pattinson hover in the background of the scene, making his exaggerated performance incongruous with the lack of movement that the film languishes in, but not focusing enough on his character for it to insert energy into proceedings. It’s another choice that makes the film’s identity difficult to parse. Its seeming lack of an author makes one wonder where the money has trickled from. With British/American stars, a desert setting from a South African novelist and a Columbian director, Waiting for the Barbarians is an inherently global film. Yet what, aside from the origin of the dollars, is representative of the Italian production?
Iervolino Entertainment, the company that produced Waiting for the Barbarians, is one of Italy’s major production houses. Spearheaded by 30-year-old mogul Andrea Iervolino, the company consciously emulates the Hollywood style of production through a mix of homegrown and internationally focused films, in an effort to tackle the global market. The Italian culture board are happy to fund his films for the possibility of global clout. But when a film like this bears such little hallmark of its motherland, what is clout worth? The producers at Iervolino seem crucially misguided about the value of a project like Waiting for the Barbarians in 2019. Big scale adaptations of sweeping novels like Coezee’s are out of favour. Look at the commercial and creative failure of John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, ostensibly a far easier prospect when one considers its Pulitzer Prize value. Waiting for the Barbarians could have been filmed in Harvey Weinstein’s prime, an All the Pretty Horses (2000) or The Human Stain (2003). It premiered at the regressive Venice Film Festival, which this year rewarded the cynical nostalgia of Joker and films by Roman Polanski and Nate Parker, where last year an audience member screamed misogynist language at Jennifer Kent, where the director Luciano Silighini Garagnani wore a “Weinstein Is Innocent” shirt on the red carpet without repercussion. Like the characters in the film, the producers enact a benign attempt at imperialism. Waiting for the Barbarians is utterly removed from anything of Italy, and yet echoes the most vulgar and despicable parts of film culture.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.