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The Barbarian Invasions

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
The Barbarian Invasions
from Film Forum, 11/20/03

In 1986, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand released The Decline of the American Empire, a story about moral disintegration among baby boomers. In 1989, he released Jesus of Montreal, which gave us a group of aimless adults who found purpose and inspiration in their own production of a passion play.

In his new film The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand brings back a few characters from Jesus of Montreal and throws them into the mix with characters from The Decline. This story concerns the last days of Remy, an adulterous history instructor who is struggling with relationships as his body gives in to cancer.

"Though the film draws comparisons between the sack of Rome and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service), "Arcand uses the term 'barbarians' to encompass a broad range of toxic influences which he sees as having an erosive effect on society, among them drugs, the health care bureaucracy and unrestrained capitalism. However, flying in the face of Arcand's assertion that the story is ultimately life-affirming are the film's pervasive nihilism and cynical view of traditional morality in favor of sexual autonomy, compounded by its reprehensible solution to suffering—murder, the most 'barbaric' act of all."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) explores the way that Arcand's film portrays Western Civilization as an Empire in decline. "Throughout the film, Arcand juxtaposes personal mortality with other kinds of mortality, such as the death of nations and ideas. The Barbarian Invasions is not a very hopeful film—it is filled with sadness, confusion and regret—but it comes by its grief honestly."

Commenting on his other discoveries at this year's Vancouver Film Festival, Chattaway discusses Thom Fitzgerald's film The Event and Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me, two other films that deal with terminal illness.

Many mainstream critics applaud the film. Andrew Sarris (New York Observer) responds to complaints of the film's melodramatic story, saying "The emotion is fully earned and is only a small part of one of the most intelligent and articulate entertainments of the year from any country."

from Film Forum, 01/08/04

French-Canadian filmmaker film director Denys Arcand, most famous for his film Jesus of Montreal, is earning widespread critical acclaim for his new film The Barbarian Invasions, which serves as a sequel to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire.

Remy (Remy Girard) is an aging history professor whose knowledge has become a source of great anxiety. Without any religious faith to guide him, he stares at history's facts and sees emptiness, chaos, disintegration, and doom. Likewise, when he looks back at his battle-scarred life, he sees only failed philosophies, loss and regret. The fact that he is dying from inoperable cancer makes him helpless to do anything about it. Only his ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) stands by him … until his son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) arrives.

Sebastien is a successful London investment banker who is more than happy to invest his fortune into making his father more comfortable. But he resents his father's history of philandering and has no interest in intellectual pursuits, while Remy views his son as the embodiment of values antithetical to his own. Determined to help ease his father's decline, Sebastien invites a crowd of Remy's old friends—fellow hedonistic survivors of the '60s, past sexual conquests—to come and visit him at the hospital. Once the friends from American Empire are reunited, they revel in nostalgia a la The Big Chill as Remy's inevitable departure approaches.

This witty and philosophical film is full of strong performances, especially from Girard as the dying, despairing, promiscuous old man and Marie-Josee Croze as a young heroin junkie who "helps" him. Arcand's direction makes us well-acquainted with this broken and misguided family even as he offers revealing observations about the dismal state of Canadian health care. But viewers should be cautioned that these characters are not examples of admirable living. In fact, only the Catholic nurse Sister Constance (Johanne Marie Tremblay), who occasionally attempts to steer Remy's attention to his spiritual poverty, seems to have a clue about the source of contentment, and her character remains marginal.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though the film draws comparisons between the sack of Rome and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Arcand uses the term 'barbarians' to encompass a broad range of toxic influences which he sees as having an erosive effect on society, among them drugs, the health care bureaucracy and unrestrained capitalism. However, flying in the face of Arcand's assertion that the story is ultimately life-affirming are the film's pervasive nihilism and cynical view of traditional morality in favor of sexual autonomy, compounded by its reprehensible solution to suffering—murder, the most 'barbaric' act of all."

Movieguide's critic says, "Though this movie has numerous drug portrayals and sexual conversations, the film is well crafted and should win awards. Regrettably, as with recent movies dealing with death, there is no mention of the only true life available to mankind—redemption through Christ Jesus. The Barbarian Invasions is about restoration of family and unconditional love, but an exploration of death void of the promise of eternal life is dismal viewing, indeed."

But Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) finds the film to be much deeper and more profound than that, "probably the most rewarding drama of the year. Funereal, desperately romantic, totally exasperating, The Barbarian Invasions simply does what all films should."

He explains, "One has a hard time feeling pity for a man who would characterize the unbelievable compassion of his son as barbaric, especially since it is Sebastien and his mother who have had to shoulder the effects of his philandering lifestyle treated so cavalierly in The Decline of the American Empire. But we feel pity nonetheless, a horrible tearful pity. Arcand really gets across the fact that death is always sad regardless of its subject. It is nothing less than the end of a life and nothing more than that final moment."


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