The Barbarian Invasions
Directed by Denys Arcand (2003)
A personal perspective by Ken Lyen
Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
(Warning: Spoilers below)
The Barbarian Invasions is an astonishing film, well deserving of its Oscar win. Remy, a left wing academic, is dying from some painful terminal illness. His relatives and friends fly in from different parts of the world to spend the last few weeks with him. Remy is a remarkable character, someone who has lived life to the full. But he is a great womaniser and is divorced from his wife and estranged from his capitalist son, Sebastien. However, when his wife informs the son that his father had actually loved him and cared for him selflessly during his younger days, Sebastien's attitude towards his father changes. He helps find his father a more private room in the hospital, and to ease the pain, he finds heroin for him. All this is done with authenticity, humour and pathos.
What does the term "Barbarian" refer to? Might I suggest that "barbarian" refers to several different things. The etymology of "barbarian" is from the Greek barbaros meaning "foreign, strange, ignorant." They used it to refer to the invasion of Greece by foreigners, especially the Persians. The ancient Romans also referred to all non-Romans, such as the hostile Gauls, as barbarians. When the civilised Roman Empire disintegrated, it was overrun by these uncivilised barbarians. America in this film represents our present "civilisation". But even this superpower is under siege by such barbarians as the perpetrators of 9/11.
The movie is a sequel to Arcand's "Decline of the American Empire" (1986), and many of the main characters are reprised, now nearly 17 years older. In the film, Remy is invaded by his "barbaric" friends and relatives who actually brings much love, laughter, and a joie de vivre. His body is invaded by heroin, which alleviates his pain. His left-wing ideals are invaded by capitalist lucre, which in turn bring him comfort.
The Barbarian Invasions is replete with little ironies. The irony of the title is that the barbarians are not quite as barbaric as they seem. The Ottoman Turks were perceived to be one of the main "barbarians" during the Roman era. However, it is their Islamic scholarship and their translations of ancient Greek, Latin and Egyptian texts from the 8th to 15th Century AD, that served to preserve Western civilisation.
"Leftists" may see themselves as selfless, moral, idealists, and their ideology being invaded by selfish, amoral, capitalists. The latter is represented by Remy's son Sebastien, who made a fortune in dealing with futures in the London Stock Exchange. He knows how to get things done, even at the expense of compromising one's sense of morality. For example he bribes the union leader to get a bed in a closed down ward for his father. Hence the irony of a capitalist son dealing with apparently principled unionists who accept bribes to bend their own rules.
Other examples of ironies include Remy's selfless left wing idealism of sharing economic wealth (ie self-denial) versus his selfish hedonistic lifestyle of enjoying fine wines and good food. Going to the USA for the finest medical treatment but ending up buying heroin illegally from backstreet sources. Trying to procure heroin, Sebastien solicits help from the narcotics police, which draws its humour from this irony. The nun nurse who gives the injection of heroin (an illegal act for a nurse because it is not prescribed by a doctor). I am sure there are many more ironies that I've missed, but these are just my preliminary thoughts.
In the end, the two poles, Remy's moral left wing ideology and Sebastien's amoral capitalism, meet. Ideologies seem irrelevant in the face of life's realities, and finally, the love of father and son are reaffirmed. Ultimately Remy is the sort of person whose enjoyment of life is infectious, and he is surrounded by family and friends who forgive all his past wrongs. What a wonderful way to die!
The Barbarian Invasions is an intelligent film with many layers to it. Beautifully acted, truthful, and touching. It's one of those films that I think I would want to watch again because I missed out on so many details, not least of which is the way it discusses philosophy. It is a tragedy masquerading as comedy, so you laugh and cry simultaneously. I would rate it as one of the films you should watch before you die!