Cast: Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, Peter Ustinov, Zack O'Malley Greenburg
Director: George Miller
Theatrical release: 1992; DVD release: 2004
The Barbarian Invasions
Cast: Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Dorothee Berryman, Louise Portal
Director and Screenwriter: Denys Arcand
Theatrical release: 2003; available on DVD
On the surface, it would seem these two films, made eleven years apart, have little in common other than the general subject of medicine or health care. But, for me, there are at least a few parallels and points of intersection.
Lorenzo's Oil is the true story of a five-year-old child with a rare and usually fatal wasting illness similar to multiple sclerosis — adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) — and the lengths to which his parents go to find treatment. It's a heart-tugging story mounted with drama and style. Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, and Peter Ustinov, as well as child actor Zack O'Malley Greenburg, make us care about these people and their struggle.
The Barbarian Invasions follows a middle-aged man with a terminal illness as he reaches out to estranged family members and reunites with many people from his past while making peace with his condition and what the next steps might be. It's an independent film from Quebec, Canada, released in the United States with English subtitles, and it's full of the talking heads and layered dialogue one might expect from an examination of a life lived fully if not always well. For viewers who are not fluent speakers of French and who must read the subtitles to get a sense of what's happening, there's an emotional distance from the characters — but then, that feeling might also come from the nature of the subject and the self-absorbed, esoteric philosophical ramblings of the main character. You decide....
As for points of connection between the films, they fall into two categories. First is the way that laypeople are forced to interact with the medical establishment — and the critical issue of money to the whole enterprise. Second is the incredible importance of communication as it plays out between and among various factions. I also found a form of truth in both films that has been a part of my own life — how the main characters and/or their families must become 'medical experts' themselves in order to interact more effectively with those in the profession. Talk about issues of communication!
In Lorenzo's Oil, the parents mortgage their house and continually search for additional sources of funding to support their effort to find answers. They do their own medical research at the National Institutes of Health so they are more able to communicate with the medical professionals and scientists who might open doors. They contact obscure research scientists who might be studying or practicing in areas that could provide therapeutic help, and they fight to get their findings recognized by the medical and scientific establishment — all while their son's health deteriorates before their eyes. (A note with the DVD indicates that Lorenzo is now 26, and that although the research and therapy shown in the film improved his condition enough to maintain his life, he still waits for the medical breakthrough that might restore function to his limbs.)
As for The Barbarian Invasions, the well-to-do estranged son of the main character is able to take extended time away from his job — and bring his financial resources to bear — to bypass the Canadian system of national health care, where patients on gurneys are stacked in hallways while a complete hospital wing is closed to save money. And he has the wherewithal to bribe various members of the hospital staff to make his father comfortable in his final days. The son is also able to buy the costly, and often illegal, drugs his father needs to fight the pain of his terminal cancer. While that may be noble — and allows the father to leave this world on his own terms — it points out how far we have yet to go as a society and as a medical establishment to provide humane and affordable end-of-life care.
Films such as these are not always easy to watch (Lorenzo's Oil being more accessible for a number of reasons), but the subjects of medicine, health care, end-of-life care, and good communication are important enough to give them a try.