TCS Daily


Capitalism With a Human Face

By Amanda Oliver - February 27, 2004 12:00 AM

The Oscar-nominated French Canadian movie The Barbarian Invasions pits a puritan ambitious capitalist against a sensual socialist. Terminally ill, leftwing history professor Rémy seems fated to live out his days in an overcrowded and chaotic Montreal hospital ward. The doctors can't remember his name, the equipment is outmoded and patients are left to languish in corridors. Rémy obstinately says that he voted for this healthcare system and that he'll suffer the consequences. His estranged son Sébastian, a high-powered commodities trader, flies over from London and moves heaven and earth to make his father's remaining days as comfortable as possible. Reuniting his father's old friends, bribing hospital administrators to get Rémy a private room on a disused floor, even procuring heroin to assuage his father's pain.

Written and directed by Denys Arcand, The Barbarian Invasions is a witty and articulate film that interweaves intimate drama with social satire. This is a compelling human story yet this movie has also a powerful political voice, with its savage indictment of an ailing state healthcare system and strong stand in favor of free choice. It's a fresh take on the failures of state education and the ironies of socialist intellectuals. In the world Denys Arcand satirizes, hospital patients are stripped of human dignity and individual rights: administrators take bribes, trade unions have a tight stranglehold, and staff steal from the helpless. Government control goes so far as to forbid patients from transferring from one hospital to another.

This film is a must-see for everyone who retains a healthy skepticism towards political correctness. Here the PC ethos is exposed as offering an equality of dismal result -- not as imbuing equality of opportunity. The hospital administrator spouts bureaucratic newspeak whilst rationalizing an intolerable situation. Politically correct free healthcare means that patients suffer inhumane treatment. This movie turns clichés of socialists and capitalists on their heads and puts forward the human face of market-oriented solutions.

Denys Arcand revisits the cast of characters of his earlier movie, Decline of the American Empire. Middle-aged Rémy now exposes the disappointments of his generation -- his idealism has turned sour. He's adhered to socialist values his entire life -- he's voted for free healthcare and chosen free love. What's his idealism brought him? He's lonely and unhappy, estranged from friends and family -- even his barely literate college students scarcely notice his absence.

It's at his mother's behest, and not out of loyalty to his father, that Sébastian now comes to Rémy's aid, for he deeply resents the fact that his father abandoned his family to chase women. Sébastian is the antithesis of his father's deeply held values. He's a philistine who's never read a book in his life. Sébastian can't cite Heidegger but he can quote Schwarzenegger. He is also able to give his father that what he now sorely lacks. He reunites Rémy with his friends where they engage in lively badinage by his bedside.

Rémy decries his son's wealth -- for him it represents bourgeois imperialism. Yet Sébastian is not greedy or avaricious; for this young man, wealth is a tool that enables him to achieve greater good. These are two very different people representing two sides of the same coin. And through their journey, father and son rediscover their love for each other.

Rémy's circle of militant intellectuals has spent their lives worshiping the latest "ism" -- be it structuralism or Maoism. Rémy's radical leanings are held to ridicule when he recalls his encounter with a Chinese archaeologist, whose real-life experiences of Rémy's idealized Cultural Revolution had been that her father was murdered, her mother committed suicide and she herself was condemned to spend two years cleaning out pigsties.

The reunited friends find none of their hallowed "isms" seem to matter much when you are faced with impending death. Ultimately, they discover that their true loyalty is to friendship and love.

Shocking images of September 11 form part of this movie's rich symbolism. Yet who are the Barbarian invaders of the film title? These are the assaults on civilized life that have already struck at the heart of the Empire. The cancer that invades Rémy's body; the narcotics trade the police are all but powerless to combat, they now do not even bother to arrest the drug dealers. In Rémy's eyes' Sébastian is already a barbarian - a puritan who has never opened a book. The young are all uncultured illiterates, barbarians in terms of the society Rémy would have wanted. This is the implied result of the previous generation's decadence. The Barbarians are in our midst.

This movie made waves in Canada with its exposure of a failing healthcare system -- but it has a much broader message for us. It's not anti-union or anti-healthcare practitioner, but anti-coercion. It makes a stand for liberty. It celebrates the human face of free enterprise, capitalism with a heart. It's up to us to carve our own destiny. Socialist ideas make powerful and appealing rhetoric -- but once implemented, they strip people of their dignity and individual rights. We need to focus on reclaiming human values not kowtow to ideology.

The Barbarian Invasions is nominated for two Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film -- also Best Original Screenplay. All those with free minds should go see it.

Amanda Oliver last wrote for TCS about taxes in England.


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