The Magistrate is a simple man. He’s in charge of a remote outpost out on the fringes of his empire’s frontier: a place where nothing happens and nobody cares. And that just suits him fine. He’s content with doing a bit of amateur archaeology in the hills outside the outpost and being friendly with the various locals.
Problem is, somebody back in the Capitol starts to care. The Magistrate’s placid existence is split asunder when a certain Colonel Joll steps out of his carriage in a crisp black uniform and baton in hand.
The colonel is looking for indications of an uprising by the barbarians in the area, something that the Magistrate has never seen. In fact, the nomad tribes just come and go as they please with little trouble at all. A little sheep stealing here, a few disturbances there. But marauding barbarians? That feels like a silly overstatement.
Joll, however, knows what he’s looking for. He presumes an impending attack and he also presumes he’ll encounter many lies to cover it up. But he has ways to apply pressure and cut through those presumptive lies. In fact, he plans on cutting, gouging and breaking many things in pursuit of the truth.
Cutting and gouging are his specialties. Joll will find his potential war. And he’ll crush it before it begins. The Magistrate worries that Colonel Joll will indeed find his war. But it will be one of his own making. The Colonel, through such brutal methods, will unintentionally create his own barbarians.
The Magistrate is a good man who gets along with the locals around him. He stands by when Joll and other officers torture prisoners, though he rushes to help the wounded but living victims after the deeds are done. Eventually he pushes back against the foul treatment, crying out for the sake of the victim’s humanity—even though he’s eventually beaten and broken and accused of treason. The Magistrate also goes to great lengths to find one victim’s family.
The Magistrate visits a woman who turns out to be a prostitute. She wears a gossamer covering that reveals the full shape of her body. Her breasts are exposed by the open front of the dress. She embraces the Magistrate and begins unbuttoning his shirt.
A wounded young nomad woman drops her robe to reveal large scars on her bare back, left by torture. We also see part of her bare backside. The Magistrate attempts to care for this woman in his room, and some in his household believe he is having sex with her. (In fact, one scene implies that may be true.)
We see soldiers groping a different female prisoner before the Magistrate stops them. And when soldiers later abandon the outpost, they grab several local women and take them with them.
“Pain is truth,” Colonel Joll declares. “All else is subject to doubt.” He and other officers of the Empire put that belief into action through torture.
We never see the torture taking place, but we do see the bloody aftermath of several such sessions. The Magistrate pulls back a covering to reveal an elderly man’s corpse that’s been badly mutilated and gouged. Another younger man is covered in blood from blade slices all over his body. Other prisoners are heavily bloodied and wear blood-soaked cloths over their faces and eyes. Bloody handprints cover a prison wall.
After Joll and his men leave, the Magistrate discovers a young woman living on the streets who turns out to be one of their victims. We see the scars on her face from where she was blinded by a red-hot fork, nd the Magistrate washes her broken and bruised ankles. She also shows him vicious scars from knife wounds on her back. The repeated and almost ritualistic cleansing of this young woman’s wounds is symbolic of the responsibility that the Magistrate accepts for her inflicted pain.
After the soldiers begin attacking the nomads, a dead soldier is sent back to the outpost tied to the saddle of his horse. The man’s head has been slashed open and his skull is hollowed out. A string of some eight or ten prisoners are ushered into the outpost, all gruesomely tied together by a single wire that runs through each person’s hands and through both of their cheeks. The men are then pushed to the ground and beaten publicly with clubs.
The Magistrate tries to stop this and is beaten himself. His attackers break his arm and tear open his face. Later, he is bound and strung up by his hands from a tree. A massive sand storm pummels a group of people.
Two f-words are spit out in the course of two angry sentences.
We see the Magistrate drink wine with his meals. A soldier gets slightly drunk on cups of the same spirit.
Waiting for the Barbarians is based on a celebrated novel of the same name, and the screenplay was penned by the novel’s author, J.M. Coetzee. The book may well have been a masterful allegory, but the film rendition is far less so.
There are some solid character choices made by the likes of stars Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp. But frankly, they don’t have a lot to work with. The movie’s message—one that decries the evils of colonialism and military occupation—is delivered with a slow, dull drum beat that’s as cinematically subtle and nuanced as a hippo dancing the two-step.
This is one of those films that you could fall asleep while watching and wake up an hour later without missing anything important. But a snooze might at least afford you the opportunity to bypass all the torture-related gore.
Instead of streaming Waiting For the Barbarians, I would suggest … you go read a celebrated novel instead.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.