The Barbarian Invasions. This is the story of a sensualist, leftist, Canadian professor who abandoned his family. He lays dying in the misery that is a hospital in the Canadian health system (“I voted for Medicare, and I’ll accept the consequences,” he declares). His money-trading capitalist son flies from London to ease his father’s death, bribing the inefficient hospital staff (while one floor is Calcutta, the one below is empty), its corrupt union, and anyone else who can make his father more comfortable. The son gathers the father’s friends and procures him heroin for pain medication. He does it without a whisper of his method, and the father feels free to casually dismiss his child’s success.
In the midst, planes strike the World Trade Center and a television commentator proclaims that it is the first of the barbarian invasions.
Why this image in what is otherwise an affecting and funny family drama? Because the film has more than political overtones and jabs. David Edelstein writes that the director’s first film, The Decline of the American Empire (1986) suffered from “neocon gloating.” I haven’t seen it, but The Barbarian Invasions plays as a wholesale assault (by velvet glove) on the excesses of modern liberalism. Socialized medicine is a hell. The union is a crime syndicate. Sexual expression and lack of fidelity breed disaffected children (the London son was estranged, as was his sister, who is away on a boat in the Pacific, and the daughter of a nother sexual libertine is a heroin addict who does not speak to her mother). The father’s professor friend boasts of his trophy wife, but that trophy shows its sharp stripes when she angrily objects to the lending of their cabin for the father’s last dying days because it was made part hers after her endless suffering “at the Ikea.”
Yet, when death knocks, the family, such as it is, coalesces, almost in spite of the knocks it has taken through the years. Family is family, the bedrock, and there is refreshingly not one “You weren’t there for us, Daddy!!!!!” extended rant, though an American equivalent would have ten such scenes. Once, upon arriving from London, the sons snaps. It is portrayed as his weakness and it lasts the 5 seconds he needs to compose himself in front of his ill father (even then, he does not know the father is dying).
Two vignettes are the heart of the film. First, the father’s coterie are all academics, and they reminisce at how many “isms” they embraced and discarded. The father then tells the story of his trip to China, where he relayed his respect of the Cultural Revolution to a Chinese academic he hoped to bed. She froze, and the father recounts how she relayed the deaths and tortures suffered by her family in that glorious revolution. Second, the son’s wife, an art dealer, is sent to a church to inspect religious artifacts. She declines (the Americans have taken all the good stuff) and a forlorn priest motions to figurines of Mary, Peter, and Christ, in a dusty, cobwebbed basement, asking “So, this is all worthless?”
Capitalism, however, is by no means faultless. The son buys everything, including the attendance of his father’s former students to pay their respects. But the film is political, a strong denunciation, not just of the excesses of modernism, but of leftist, Western liberalism. And even if you don’t get that message (I can’t imagine the Academy, which nominated the picture for Best Foreign Film, did), it still triumphs as a beautiful story of family and friends re-converging for a humane goodbye to a flawed man.