October 26 — November 01
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:00|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
The title of this documentary from director Bart Layton is one big spoiler: the young man who claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, who had disappeared from his San Antonio home in 1994… is actually Frédéric Bourdin, a French con man who fooled the FBI, the European authorities, and the still-grieving Barclay family for what seems an impossibly long time. Even if we’re not familiar with the deception from David Grann’s article in The New Yorker—and if the film had a different, non-spoiler title—the self-proclaimed Nicholas Barclay who suddenly appears in Spain just seems too improbable. How does a blonde, blue-eyed adolescent from Texas turn into a dark-haired, brown-eyed youth with a French accent in just four years (and at 23, was noticeably older than the high school age boy he should have been)? Granted, Bourdin is a smooth operator who spun some fantastic yarns about being abducted, raped, and tortured by military sadists—but the nagging question persists: how could the Barclays have believed this was their son? Is the desire to believe, to hold on so tenaciously to the slim possibility that Nicholas could be alive, so powerful that it warped their basic judgment? That’s one of the major themes of Layton’s provocative, chilling film, which expertly combines archival footage, interviews with the real-life subjects, and skillful re-enactments with actors saying what their counterparts reportedly said to one another. Another theme is how Bourdin could justify what he did: he tells of a childhood of abuse and racist bullying (he claims to be part-Arab), but it’s hard to take anything he says at face value—still, there has to be a reason buried somewhere beneath the lies. Layton wisely lets all the participants in the drama offer their perspectives on what happened, and why they did what they did—including the detectives and law enforcement officials who worked on the case. It’s easy at first to dismiss Bourdin as a heartless villain (his cocky grin will make viewers want to smack him), the Barclays as sad, rather pathetic dupes, and the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic as bumblers—but like all great documentaries, The Imposter doesn’t linger on surface appearances, but burrows deeper into the heart of the story, making us understand how and why this ruse worked. Some fine movies have utilized the idea of a “changeling” taking the place of a lost loved one—The Return of Martin Guerre and its American remake, Sommersby, come to mind—but these fictional films tend to simplify the psychology, making it easy to understand why the deceived parties actually protect their imposters. Layton’s film is more complex but no less engaging and even suspenseful, although we know from the start that the happy reunion is a sham. Indeed, knowing what we know gives the re-created scenes of “Nicholas” worming his way into his family’s affection (as well as the sympathy of neighbors and classmates) a perversely fascinating, almost horror movie appeal. But Bourdin isn’t the only one with a dark side. Nicholas Barclay came from a family that was deeply troubled even before his disappearance: his mother was a heroin addict; older half-brother Jason (reportedly the last person to talk to Nicholas) had a cocaine problem, which would eventually cause his death; there were violent arguments between mom and Jason, before and after Nicholas never returned home that fateful night in 1994. Bourdin himself suggests that Nicholas was killed by his family, who were then compelled to maintain the fiction that Bourdin was their long-lost son even though they knew he couldn’t be—even protecting “Nicky” when law enforcement starts to get suspicious. Truth and lies are blurred, and though we never learn the “whole” story, there’s enough here to make this an intriguing tale. Among its achievements is that it’s a fascinating look into the mind of a very disturbed individual—Bourdin—who seems to have no conscience or full understanding of his actions (at first, he’s afraid he’ll be discovered when he realizes he looks nothing like Nicholas Barclay; later, he actually confesses his crime because his new life in Texas bored him). The film is like an Agatha Christie mystery, but with added psychological insight and offering a perceptive look at how different people—each with his own agenda—played a role in making such an audacious masquerade succeed against all odds. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival, The Imposter is an unforgettable film, one of the best documentaries of 2012.
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