‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ Ending Explained: Who Are the Barbarians?

Waiting for the Barbarians Ending

Welcome to the Ending Explained for “Welcome to the Barbarians,” a film now available on Netflix, directed by Ciro Guerra, the director of the spectacular “Embrace of the Serpent.” The film stars Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, and Gana Bayarsaikhan. J.M Coetzee writes the screenplay as an adaptation of his novel of the same title. The film had a very lukewarm reception, but it is surely a film that will be appreciated more as time passes. The movie maintains the same tone as the novel but loses some elements in translation while retaining others that don’t work as well on the screen.

One of the elements that were retained from the novel is the pacing. Nowadays, most audiences have very short attention spans. So it isn’t surprising that a movie like this, which takes its time to introduce the characters, the situation, and how the characters’ actions have consequences, could be seen as a slow, boring fest.

I believe that the movie is so much more than that and that it is quite a solid film that explores a very important topic as colonialism and is still able to be a movie about so much more than that. The colonialism angle can be interpreted in several ways, making the movie richer in meaning.


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The following paragraphs contain spoilers for Waiting for the Barbarians. Read at your own risk.

Who Is The Magistrate?

Waiting for the Barbarians is divided into four parts, a structural element that gives away its origins as a novel. This makes the film feel a bit episodic, but it works. The film’s first part, “The Colonel,” introduces us to an isolated outpost in the desert.

There, we meet our protagonist, a man who is simply known as The Magistrate. The Magistrate is well-known and respected in the outpost, and he serves the surrounding population by maintaining order and peace. He makes decisions on some matters, but it seems he stays hands-off as much as he can.

This outpost was built to keep tabs on The Frontier. The Magistrate is a member of an unknown empire, and the fact that the empire is never acknowledged as any more than that gives away the fact that the author sees this empire as every single empire that has existed in human history.

The titular, Barbarians, the empire’s enemy, is also only denominated like that, which means they are the enemy the empire has built upon to strengthen their agendas. From the Mongolians to the Native Americans, they have all been called barbarians by their enemies.

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The peace of the outpost is disturbed by the arrival of Colonel Joll. Joll is a ruthless imperial officer who has come to the outpost looking for unrest. The Colonel has no reason to look for that, but empires, governments, and regimes must always create and maintain an enemy in the background. There is always the need to blame someone else for one’s faults.

This is the real mission of the Colonel, to create an enemy they can bully. The Magistrate begs the Colonel to keep the peace and let people live their lives. But that is, of course, impossible.

The Colonel tortures a father and son arrested for allegedly stealing cheap. He extracts what he calls a confession, and after the father dies, he makes the boy serve him as a guide. The father and the boy were only looking for medicine for his daughter, and now they are starting a war.

The boy guides the Colonel to his territory, and they come back with several prisoners, and then the torture continues. The Magistrate is in shock. He cannot believe there is so much evil and feels nauseated by the Colonel’s lack of empathy. The Magistrate tries to bring things back to normal when the colonel leaves.

Who Is The Girl In Waiting For The Barbarians?

One day, a homeless girl appears at the outpost. The Magistrate tries to make her understand that he doesn’t accept vagrants at the outpost. She can choose to work and stay or leave home. The girl decides to stay. She has difficulty walking. She shows The Magistrate that her ankles are broken. She is the victim of the tortured prisoners the Colonel left behind during his investigations.

The Magistrate begins a strange relationship with The Girl. He is gentle and caring with her, and many people around the outpost believe she has become her sexual partner, which is wrong. The Magistrate sees her as something to take care of and nothing else.

This angle might seem strange, but it is also a way to see colonialism and the “white savior” complex. A complex that just wouldn’t exist if others were not trying to conquer other people.

The Magistrate receives the visits of other officials, and there are rumors that the empire will launch an attack on the Barbarians very soon. The Magistrate is baffled, as there is no reason to make war at all. The Magistrate also sees that The Girl is unhappy with him, and he decides to take her home. He gathers some men, and they travel into the desert. They finally find other Barbarians, and he leaves the girl with them. However, it is clear that The Girl didn’t want to leave him.

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When The Magistrate returns, he sees that the empire has taken over the outpost, and they are accusing him of being a traitor for helping The Girl go home. This is just another proof that the empire needs control, and they are not in search of anything else. They arrest The Magistrate and torture him.

Then he finally becomes a prisoner at his outpost. He is allowed to walk free, as everything is just a façade. The outpost cook tells him that The Girl was sad not because of what the others did to her but because she didn’t know how to please The Magistrate. He was never clear about what he wanted from her.

In the end, just like it has happened throughout history with every other empire, the empire in the movie actually realizes they have created a real enemy out of their need for control using torture and fear.


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The officers in charge decide to leave the outpost to their luck and take everything from the citizens before leaving. As the movie ends, we see a horde of Barbarians on the horizon, ready to make war on the empire and most likely bring it down. The movie is a big analogy to one of humanity’s biggest. If you push on people, they will push back sooner or later.

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