WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee’s revered novel was first published in 1980, and renowned composer Philip Glass later adapted the South African writer’s work into a 2005 opera. It’s a fascinating piece of literature that, on the surface, doesn’t lend itself easily to the silver screen. Perhaps it works because Mr. Coetzee wrote the screenplay himself, and rising star director Ciro Guerra brings it to life. Mr. Guerra’s two most recent films were both excellent: BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2018) and EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015).

Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) stars as The Magistrate of a desert outpost on the fringes of territory controlled by ‘The Empire’. The Magistrate is mild-mannered and non-confrontational. He’s a fair administrator, and Rylance’s outstanding performance ensures he’s a sympathetic figure, yet not a perfect man. The Magistrate’s approach is to maintain a peaceful co-existence with the local nomads, who are described as ‘barbarians’ by others in The Empire.

Things change quickly and severely when Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives at the settlement. We see his approach thanks to cinematographer Chris Menges’ beautiful wide shot of Joll’s horse-drawn carriage surrounded by desert and mountains. Depp plays Colonel Joll as a stoic man committed to a mission he never fully states. Instead he sermonizes about his interrogation process with such gems as “patience and pressure” are the key, and “truth has a certain tone”. It’s not long before we learn, right along with The Magistrate, that Joll’s definition of ‘pressure’ would be termed torture and brutality by any reasonable person. His ruthless ‘interrogations’ lead to the result he was sent to obtain: the local barbarians are planning an uprising.

Director Guerra provides sub-chapters for the various seasons through which the story progresses. The Colonel arrived in “Summer” sporting sunglasses, and proclaiming “Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt.” It’s a mantra that plays out in various ways. “Winter” brings ‘the girl”, a native with two broken ankles and other signs of torture. The Magistrate and the girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan, EX MACHINA) have an unconventional relationship, one that doesn’t go over well with Joll’s police force or the other locals, including Mai (Greta Scacchi), one of the loyal outpost staff members.

“Spring” is subtitled ‘The Return’, and it includes The Magistrate returning the girl to her people, and his subsequent return to the outpost where Joll’s second-in-command, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), has him arrested and tortured for consorting with the enemy. Pattinson plays his role in wild-eyed contrast to Depp’s stoicism. When “Autumn” rolls around, it becomes clear that the real question is, “Who is the enemy?” or, perhaps, “Who are the real Barbarians?” The Magistrate is viewed as a traitor and laughingly referred to as “one just man”.

It’s frustrating at times to think about the modern day application of this story. What is an empire? The violence, narcissism, and lust for power lead to a loss of humanity that is painful to observe. Filmed in Morocco and Italy, the oppressive nature of the frontier makes this quite a downer, and one that requires effort and time to connect as a viewer. It also allows Menges and his camera to capture the details of the office and apartment, along with the sparseness of the jail … both in contrast to the vast frontier. This is a either a tale of morality or a cautionary warning shot that solidifies Joll’s adage. Perhaps pain is indeed required for truth.

Available On Demand August 7, 2020

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OPERATION FINALE (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramas, by definition, carry added depth and weight to stories that sometimes seem almost beyond belief. Such is the true story of the 1960 Mossad mission to capture Adolph Eichmann, the noted architect of the Final Solution, who was hiding in plain sight in Argentina. You might think there have already been enough Holocaust movies, but director Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) hones in on the personal aspects of loss and anger, and the need for justice.

Matthew Orton’s first screenplay benefits greatly from a terrific cast, especially the two main characters played by Ben Kingsley (Adolph Eichmann) and Oscar Isaac (Mossad agent Peter Malkin). Sir Ben is notably restrained in his performance of the last surviving mastermind of the Holocaust, and one of the most despised men on the planet. His subdued performance aligns perfectly with the “ordinary” man of which we’ve since read. Mr. Isaac adds the element of psychology in his “good cop” approach to getting Eichmann to crack.

Playing much like a heist movie, we see the team assembled and the quite convoluted plan devised. The high risk strategy underscores the desperation so many felt in their need to see Eichmann pay for his atrocities. The manhunt required some political tip-toeing, and we even gain a history lesson on the role of the Catholic Church. A tip from a “secret” Jewish daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) and her father (Peter Strauss) set things in motion. Sylvia (Ms. Richardson) actually dates Klaus Eichmann (played by Joe Alwyn), who is a picture-perfect Aryan carrying on the horrid Nazi tradition of hatred.

Of course, Klaus is the son of Adolph, and the one who spills the beans about his father being “a big deal” in the war … thereby ruining the quiet and mostly unassuming life they have been living with Adolph’s wife (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Scacchi). Sylvia and Klaus meet at a movie when she shushes him and his friends. Director Weitz even includes a clip of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that not coincidentally stars his mother, Susan Kohner. It’s a nice touch.

Much of the film takes place in the safe house where Adolph Eichmann is blindfolded and spoon-fed. It’s here that the psychological games and political maneuverings begin. Supporting actors who add strength to the film include team members Melanie Laurent (Hanna), Michael Aranov (chief negotiator Zvi), Lior Raz (as the demanding team director), Nick Kroll, and Simon Russell Beale (as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). There is a history of bumpy romance between Hanna and Peter, though it adds little to the story.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is terrific, especially during a creative and informative opening credit sequence. “Who did you lose?” is a recurring question throughout, as it’s 1960 and everyone involved lost someone – a driving force behind their persistence and commitment to the cause. The film is focused on the mission to capture, not the details of the subsequent trial; however it does close with archival photos of the actual trial – adding historical relevance to this fine dramatization.

watch the trailer: