Caught The Barbarian Invasions the other night, celebrated by critics for its intelligence and fine acting when it came out in theaters last year. Now on DVD, the movie proves curious, interesting, and with few equals in the one or two areas where it truly excels. Those two areas might be roughly described as politics and the depiction of intellectuals.
The opening shots of a hospital will make you think you’re visiting wartorn Bosnia, instead of Canada the land of socialized medicine. A dying father in Montreal has to be taken to Vermont for a decent X-ray, before the results are transmitted to experts in Europe, so pointless, according to the movie, is it to raise questions with Canada’s health authorities. But don’t get comfortable, because one soon realizes this movie’s title comes from a bit of TV punditry in which a condescending Euro-style intellectual discusses the meaning of 9/11. And still, the movie’s soul is elsewhere, possibly with this dying man and his circle of aging radical intellectuals.
These sweet old farts get a wonderful chance to sit around like old times, lamenting their mistakes—one hilarious scene has them naming every –ism they ever fell for—and celebrating the life of the mind. Even as the movie appears to be rooted in a typically Canadian not-Americanism, America’s founding receives the most respectful treatment in a long, lavish conversation celebrating history’s greatest moments of intellectual alignment. That is, when all the geniuses of an age seemed to know each other and left behind a lasting monument of their combined effort. It’s a bittersweet moment for a circle of brainy people who are leaving behind only a legacy of friendship.
Once I realized the movie was heading toward the dying man’s suicide, I turned away, because I did not want to be subjected to any lectures on physician-assisted suicide (which I oppose). But then, faced with the prospect of returning a half-watched DVD to the store, I gave it another try. And for a movie that does some serious lifting in the ideas department, The Barbarian Invasion proves to have a surprisingly light touch, even in this heaviest of scenes.
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