It’s another Friday, and even though we must spend it yet again in isolation, the Michigan & State Theatre are here for you with a new selection of independent films. And this weekend, we have perhaps our most lauded and star-studded selection yet. Particularly, today you can now see WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, starring Academy Award winner Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson from Director Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent and Birds of Passage), making his first English language feature.
Now, before you go researching this film and see that it has been somewhat divisive from the critics, know that this film requires a bit of context that I wish I had understood before I watched it myself. The film, which is adapted from the 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee (who also wrote the screenplay) has a certain Kafkaesque ambiguity to it and evokes an apocalyptic foreboding, but yet it plays like a non-fictional historical drama that could very well be based on a true story. It’s a film that will leave you asking many questions, but answer few.
In the narrative, Mark Rylance plays an unnamed Magistrate who lives in a peaceful unnamed desert settlement in an unnamed region. There is little crime, so he spends most of his time collecting ancient artifacts and conversing with the locals. When a mysterious Colonel, played by Depp, arrives representing the police force of “The Empire”, the Magistrate’s peace is shattered. The Colonel sets out on an expedition to capture and torture the native “Barbarians” to set a precedent of dominance. When he finally leaves, the Magistrate finds his Eden breached by violence and anger that shatters the peaceful status quo he had settled for himself.
Though it was filmed in Morocco, the actual setting of the film remains unknown—the native “Barbarians” speak Mongolian and the plot ties closely to the occupation of South Africa by the British and Dutch. And though the soldiers are armed with weapons and dressed in gear made for the mid-19th century, Depp’s Colonel also dons odd, almost steampunk-style glasses that, apparently, everyone is wearing “back home”.
It’s a fictional fashion trend that exists no place in time, and the film seems to exist in a void and meld of the past and future all at once. Similarly, I’m reminded of the film Transit that played at the Michigan in 2019, which focused on a man attempting to flee Nazi occupied France, though this “France” in which he lived included modern vehicles and clothing.
Like so many of the past few month’s “Spotlights”, this is clearly another one that speaks closely to our times. Not only because it’s an obvious allegory of the past and future of white colonization, but also there’s a very stunning, and almost reassuring moment that fights back on the “white savior” tendency that stories like this often celebrate.
It’s easy to applaud Rylance’s Magistrate for his progressive attitudes, because he’s certainly better than Depp or Pattinson’s characters, but at a certain point you’re reminded that he’s still been complicit in his role and there’s a self-congratulatory attitude we must be fearful of in ourselves. And in the end, we observe the results these attitudes propagate.
That’s where I’ll end so that I don’t give too much about this film away. And on that note… I don’t want to forget a few other titles that we are opening this week like WE ARE LITTLE ZOMIBES, which was a selection of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it became an instant favorite for myself and my colleague Makenzie Peecoock (Conference Manager of the Art House Convergence). On Rotten Tomatoes, this is another film that is misrepresented because though it well reviewed, it is labelled solely as a “Drama”, and though it is focused on a grief-stricken group of orphans, it is very funny and creatively illustrates the passage of grief.
The film is written and directed by Makoto Nagahisa, who also composed the glorious 8-bit, video game style soundtrack to further accentuate the main characters’ lapse of reality. So, needless to say, for anime lovers out there or fans of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, this film is for you. And if you’re not in that category, it’s a terrific, earthly introduction into that world
And then there is GUEST OF HONOUR starring David Thewlis, I would say an exceptional and highly unappreciated talent (Fargo: Season 3 anyone?) that’s also opening today, with a performance from Thewlis that has been called his “best performance since Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’” (The Film Stage).
There’s a lot to offer this week, so I’ll refrain from throwing out more titles, because I also want to ask you to support the Nevertheless Film Festival taking place virtually through Sunday, July 12! I have my access pass and ready to use it, and I hope you’ve done or will do the same. You can join myself and the film festival community on Twitter using the hashtag #Nevertheless2020 – See you there and have a great weekend!
In regards to the Nevertheless Film Festival, enjoy these other supplementary materials from our blog: