waiting for the barbarians

Hélio Oiticica, Great Nucleus


Commentary on the film directed by Ciro Guerra

Kafka's specter, and the entire cohort of the theater of the absurd, insists on prowling the cinema. This is what happens in waiting for the barbarians, carried out under the aegis of Kavaphys, the bard of Alexandria and the decadence of empires, which lends it its title. In an insignificant and remote colonial outpost in the middle of the desert, the Magistrate legislates and takes care, without much conviction, to keep the barbarians at bay. But these are poor devils, and they don't threaten anyone. Until an intervening colonel appears, who institutes torture and brutal interrogations, under the pretext of eradicating a sedition. The conflict is armed, and its development is the fulcrum of the film. The plot still reminds the desert of the tartars, novel by Dino Buzzatti.

JL Coetzee, author of the novel on which the film is based, is the South African who, shortly after Nadine Gordimer, won the Nobel Prize. Both were dedicated militants who in their fiction denounced the crimes of apartheid which, this one, was genocidal and tremendously cruel. Fortunately, he is gone, and not without a fight, see the 27 years that Nelson Mandela spent incarcerated. O apartheid he found in these and other writers and artists, such as the singer Miriam Makeba, opponents of weight and respect, for the greater glory of the nation. A fine crop of films would come later, perpetuating the glorious feats of resistance, but theatre, song and literature had the honor of facing repression live.

The film's director is Colombian and has already drawn attention with another work, The serpent's embrace, in which an Indian, the last remnant of his nation, and a white explorer set out on a somewhat vague quest. As can be seen, the director insists on resolving the painful wound of ethnic friction and the catastrophes it entails. It requires registration to cast a trio of actors that couldn't be better: Mark Rylance is the protagonist, the Magistrate, supported by Johnny Depp as the sadistic colonel and by Robert Pattinson as his lieutenant.

Of the three, the least known among us is Mark Rylance, in fact not only among us, in Hollywood as well: an artist with his extraordinary curriculum only belatedly won an Oscar, and even then as a supporting actor. This happened in the movie The Bridge of Spies, by Steven Spielberg, in which he plays Colonel Abel, the Russian spy who, tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison in the United States, never opened his mouth, neither confessed nor gave himself up to denunciation.

The actor was not exactly unknown, as he had already won no less than three Tonys, the highest American theatrical award, on the Broadway stage. Great Shakespearean actor, comes from Royal Shakespeare Company. When they rebuilt the Globe Theater consumed by a fire, which the English bard owned and acted in, Mark Rylance was its first director, and for ten years, from 1995 to 2005.

The reconstructed theater stands in plain view on the Embankment, on the bank of the Thames and follows the model of the performance halls of the time. The audience has no seats: everyone stood, with the stage at eye level. There was the plebs, in great hubbub, cheering according to the plot moves. Rounded in plan, along the walls were three or four floors of more expensive places with benches, all covered by a thatched roof, while the center of the circle was open to the sky, for reasons of lighting and oxygen.

During the entire decade that Mark Rylance ran the house, he never stopped performing as an actor, and it is possible to see him in documentaries from the Globe Theater. So we see it in twelfth night, cwith a male cast (mandatory in Elizabethan theatre), playing a priceless Countess Olivia, who glides through the limelight with small steps hidden by voluminous skirts. You must have had a lot of fun.

This film, made now, is certainly an allegory of the end of the world, or the Apocalypse, one of the most numerous cinematographic genres today. The pandemic and the rise of the right, decreeing the closure of the horizons that opened the future, made this type of film common and banal – but this one waiting for the barbarians nothing common or banal. On the contrary, it invites meditation.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reading and rereading (Senac\Gold over Blue).



waiting for the barbarians (Waiting for the barbarians)
United States, 2020, 114 minutes
Directed by: Ciro Guerra.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattins

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