A special corner is reserved in my perception of the art of film to the French cinema, and it is films like the French-Canadian The Barbarian Invasions from 2003 (or Les invasions barbares) that earn this special privilege. In a world where most of the films I watch come from Hollywood, it is the sad reality the majority of this majority cannot compete with the level of depth displayed by this French speaking film.
The Barbarian Invasions tells the story of a father (Rémy Girard) who is about to die of cancer and is doomed to spend the last of his days at the hospital. He starts off at a crowded public hospital, where he seems doomed to spend the remaining days of his life sharing a room with four other guys and all the noise and commotion they, their visitors and their TVs bring along.
The picture changes when the wife "orders" the estranged son (Stéphane Rousseau), a successful London based business man, to come home and see to his father's remaining life. The father and the son don't get along; the father is a leftie idealist while the son is the manifestation of capitalism. There are also family frictions: we learn the father was not particularly loyal to his wife and actually takes pride in all the mistresses he had; it is obvious the father is not an easy person to get along with. Still, in spite of all the issues between them, and with the wide use of his extensive wallet, the son manages to sort proper accommodation for his father - the kind a person at the end of their life deserves. He manages to get the closest friends around; he even pays for some of his father's students to come along. By far the greatest extreme he goes to is in acquiring help to administer cocaine to the father in order to make his last days livable.
The story of The Barbarian Invasions is definitely an interesting one. However, it is the layers of depth presented by the film that are its best attraction: the clash between socialism, as represented by the father, and the capitalism represented by the son does not spare either from criticism. I felt the film goes farther than that, though: through its barbarians' invasion of Rome metaphor and the inevitable comparison with September 11, and through further mentioning of the proliferation of immigrant drug dealing gangs in the streets of Montreal, the film tries to tell the viewer something about the effects the passage of time can have on our perceptions. Specifically, the way with which we almost naturally feel as if we used to do things better while the current generation is up to no good; the way we tend to think, almost naturally, that the world is going down in the dumps.
What can I say? It's a pleasure to see a film so well made, weaving its complex story as well as it does. Most films today don't manage to provide one decent character; The Barbarian Invasions manages to define and handle multiple characters extremely well. A true gem of cinema making.
Best scene #1:
The mother explains to the son how, despite all the issues she has with the dying father and despite all the issues the son has with his father, the father still deserves his son's love. She brings back stories of early childhood sickness and the devotion and care displayed by the father, but summarizes it all by saying you cannot understand how much your parents love you until you become a parent yourself.
How very true! Only now, when I am going through the same motions with my own toddler, can I truly respect what my parents have done to me. Sure, I have my reservations about their parenthood skills; but the truth is that throughout growing up I was never short on anything, and up until I graduated from university (as well as long after that) they provided me with a sheltered life that made things so much easier for me. Easier, but not noticeably so until that shelter was gone and I left home.
Given my parents' old age, and given the number of continents between my parents and I, watching The Barbarian Invasions certainly had me thinking just how soon I would live through the film's same scenarios myself. I was also wondering what kind of a son I would be at those final stages of my parents' lives.
Best scenario #2 (spoiler alert!): The euthanasia, following a proper farewell from the friends and while being surrounded by the best of friends and family, and set at the dying's favorite place. Because we all must die, this is the way we should die by; not as the shadows of our former selves most of us will eventually end up like after lengthy periods of suffering unnecessarily at the hospital.
Technical assessment: I watched The Barbarian Invasions off the air from SBS HD. Although what passes as HD by SBS's terms is a far cry from what I would call high definition, I do feel complied to mention the stereo soundtrack provided more effective surround envelopment than the majority of other films I get to watch through much superior platforms. It's the wonderful music that does it.
Overall: The biggest compliment I can give The Barbarian Invasions is that this is a film that made me think. Not only did it make me think, it also made me act: it made me look at the writings of Primo Levi (who is referenced in the film) and made me acquire some of those. With such an impact you may as well argue I am being hard on the film when I give it only 4 out of 5 stars.