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The Barbarian Invasions
by
Dennis Morton
Aired March 30, 2004


It’s been years since I’ve paid attention to the Oscars. But this year the award for best picture was right on the nose. I’m not talking about the highly overrated Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I’m talking about the award for best foreign film. It went to Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions.

Now that The Passion Of The Christ has demystified subtitles for those who were previously allergic to foreign films, (which is Gibson’s only real contribution to cinema), there’s no excuse for avoiding movies like The Barbarian Invasions.

Arcand’s latest is a work of genius. It’s deeply sad, often funny, and always smart – very smart. I love listening to the conversation of brilliant people. And if you do, too, you won’t want to miss this one.

But …Invasions is about much more than witty conversation. It’s about love, lust, loss, regret and misunderstanding. It’s about reconciliation and, if you will forgive the cliché, a search for the meaning of life.

In his new movie, Arcand reassembles the cast of The Decline Of The American Empire, a film that came out in 1986. In that movie we follow a handful of men and women in and out of gyms, bedrooms, kitchens and classrooms. We learn about their infidelities, their appetites and their intellectual passions. They share an interest in art, literature and most of all, history.
The earlier film opened with a scene that reminded me of a real estate broker making a pitch. A history professor is introducing his class to the fundamentals of the discipline. He tells them that history is about three things: 1) numbers, 2) numbers, and 3) numbers. And then provides his students with appropriate examples. This slant on reading history arithmetically continues in The Barbarian Invasions. We get a century by century scorecard of the mass murder world series.

In the face of such knowledge, it’s hardly surprising that some live as if there were no tomorrow. And by that measure, the larger one’s appetite, the larger one’s life. But what happens when the limits of sensuality are approached and a reckoning of the costs is at hand? That’s the central theme in The Barbarian Invasions.

It’s a film that explores the consequences of a life of the senses, but it’s also a film about ideas. For me it was tremendously exhilarating.

For Arcand there are no sacred cows. I suspect I know where his social sympathies lie, but he’s merciless in portraying institutions that fail to deliver the goods, no matter how egalitarian they are. Early in the movie the camera follows a nun through the corridors of a Quebec hospital. It’s nightmarish and frightening. And advocates of a single payer health system, of whom I am one, will be devastated by it.

Beautifully filmed, acted, written and directed, The Barbarian Invasions is quite simply the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. With …Invasions, Arcand joins the ranks of Spain’s Almodovar as one of the world’s great filmmakers. Don’t miss it.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.