The Barbarian Invasions

Starring Remy Girard, Stephane Rousseau.
Directed by Denys Arcand.
Running Time:

In 1987, Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire was a witty and intellectual treat, a group of Canadians in middle age, assessing their lives and careers, discussing, sometimes profoundly, sometimes fatuously, their interpretation of the world, especially the American-dominated western world. But, the film was not so strong on its dramatic narrative.

Then came Jesus of Montreal, 1989, a surprising, complex film that satisfied as drama, as display of characters, as intellectual discussion and as visually arresting. Arcand's films of the 90s were less satisfying. The Barbarian Invasions gathers all Arcand's talents and offers a sequel to The Decline to enjoy and relish.

Arcand and his characters are older and, very often, wiser. Remy Giraud as the dying Remy is the larger than life (which he is soon to leave) focus of the film, a blustering, often raging character who has alienated wife and children but still commands the devotion of friends (the main gallery from Decline whom it is fascinating to listen to 15 years on, joys, regrets and all). When his son - a new barbarian who plays computer games and has never read a book yet is a millionaire financial adviser - is able to relocate his father in a reconditioned hospital room, the older man begins to change as does his son. But, for Arcand, there is no quick sentimentality. The friends still discuss the world and assess their lives. The next generation - who are more preoccupied by money, drugs (and mobile phones) than sex - are challenged in generosity, responsibility and love.

The setting is post 9/11 (pictured shockingly in the film) and Arcand uses this as the basis for his title metaphor - but, who are the new barbarians? The 'illiterate' generation who think money can buy anything - and does?

The range of migrants and refugees who pour into the American world?

Perhaps the metaphor is over-stated for the realities it refers to.

Arcand has many intriguing, passing observations, especially the characters' Catholic reminiscences, the changes in Catholicism in Montreal in 1966 and the emptying of the Churches of people and statuary. The nun doing pastoral care in the hospital is presented with dignity and sympathy. The film ends with an assisted suicide which seems emotionally satisfying even as it goes against and challenges accepted religious and social standards.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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