The last rites

Film - Mark Kermode basks in the ethereal glow of a French-Canadian gem

According to Remy, ageing Lothario turned terminal cancer patient, "The history of mankind is a history of horrors." Certainly, there are ample tragedies to support Remy's conclusion, from the 16th-century slaughter of 150 million Indians ("Even with the support of the Church, that was an achievement!") to the hypocrisy of a modern world in which a pope may languish in a gilded Vatican while Primo Levi is shipped off to Auschwitz. Yet, as Remy's God-fearing companion argues while he rails against organised religion and rampant materialism, if history is nothing more than a catalogue of crimes, then surely "someone has to exist who can forgive us . . . ?".

In the case of The Bar- barian Invasions, a French-Canadian gem nominated in both the foreign language film and original screenplay categories at this year's Oscars, that someone is Denys Arcand, Quebec's most celebrated cinematic son who returns to form with this revisiting of the characters from his 1986 masterpiece The Decline of the American Empire. Gathered together to mark the passing of their most promiscuous colleague, the group look back on a life of radical contradictions, fired by sex, politics, religion and (perhaps most importantly) an unquenchable lust for life. "We've been everything," they declare with mocking pride, recounting their passionate allegiance to existentialism, anti-colonialism, separatism, Marxism, Maoism, situationism, structuralism and feminism. Now, faced with their own mortality, they are left to wonder with typical self-consciousness: "Is there an 'ism' we haven't worshipped?"

As with all of Arcand's films, there is much in The Barbarian Invasions to provoke robust debate, most notably regarding the identity of the hordes of the title. Early on, as Remy lies in an incredibly under-equipped hospital ward, a familiar TV talking head explains that the attacks of 9/11 were significant not because of their death toll, but because "they struck at the heart of the empire". In future, the pundit concludes, the twin towers tragedy may be seen by Americans as "the beginning of the great barbarian invasions". Later, a police detective fighting a losing battle against the tide of heroin sweeping Montreal catalogues the litany of international gangs supplying the growing demand for the drug. "We bust an Iranian gang," he murmurs with unaffected resignation, "and the Iraqis take their place. Or the Lebanese; Turks; Italians . . . It's an invasion." Yet in the film's central speech, the group of addled lefties assembled at Remy's side agree that throughout the fog of history "the Arabs kept intelligence alive", leaving Remy to condemn his own fantastically successful son as the true Prince of the Barbarians - the puritanical capitalists whose materialism has superseded the sensual socialism of their collective past.

Ironically, it is within this relationship between estranged father and son that the film's best hope of redemption lies. Ordered, in effect, by his mother to make Remy's final days comfortable, Sebastien (wonderfully played by the comedian Stephane Rousseau) proves his down-to-earth worth, bribing the hospital's corrupt unions to open up a closed ward for his father, procuring heroin to alleviate his pain and even paying Remy's neglectful former students to visit his sickbed. In so doing, Sebastien sets in motion a chain of events whose life-affirming nature gives the film an ethereally warm edge - from the student who refuses Sebastien's payment after realising the bankruptcy of her callousness towards Remy, to the heroin addict employed by Sebastien to supply his father with drugs, who finally discovers that there may be a reason to embrace life after all. So affecting is the second of these sub-plots that co-star Marie-Josee Croze walked off with the best actress award at Cannes last year, beating off competition from the bookies' favourite, Nicole Kidman.

There is marvellous comedy on offer, too, particularly in Remy's lusty (and mildly blasphemous) reminiscences of a misspent life that will leave him roasting in hell while the godly are condemned to spend eternity flanked by "a surly Pole" (the Pope) and "a slimy Albanian" (Mother Teresa). Wonderful, too, are Remy's unabashed memories of the "rivers of sperm" spilt dreaming of the thighs of actress Ines Orsini, or the firm backhand of the tennis player Chris Evert - illicit appetites now usurped by an inability to hold down even the finest wines. "I never thought I'd see the day when you'd refuse fresh truffles," murmurs his friend, to which Remy replies with quiet resignation: "Alas, that day has arrived . . ." As it glides towards a foregone conclusion, the film's visual palette moves from the cold confinement of the hospital ward to the open vistas of a lakeside house, where natural browns and greens offer a sense of escape and the promise of transcendence. "Embrace the mystery," Remy is told in one sublimely awkward moment, "and you'll be saved." However sardonically intended, it is a message that the film - and its audience - ultimately find hard to resist.

The Barbarian Invasions (18) is on general release