Friday, February 22, 2013

New Release Review: The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

I first watched The Imposter at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival. This review first appeared in my diary coverage.  

In 1994, a 13-year-old boy, Nicholas Barclay disappears from his rural hometown in San Antonio, Texas without a trace. Three and a half years later, his family is contacted with the news that Nicholas has turned an orphanage in southern Spain. He has a story of kidnap, abuse and torture - at the hands of the military - and is evidently a very different person to the blue-eyed, blonde-haired youth who went missing. Not all is as it seems, and we soon learn that the boy welcomed home by Nicholas' overjoyed, yet completely oblivious family is not Nicholas Barclay at all, but Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French man. The Imposter is a truly mind-blowing documentary which blends real-life testimony with sleekly photographed re-enactments. Despite hearing both sides of the tale, and we gather further insight from investigating parties and those involved with the reuniting of the family with their supposed son, we still leave feeling like we are no closer to complete authority on the truth behind this bizarre story.

During my post-screening research I learned that there have been some hostile responses to The Imposter with claims made that Bart Layton trivialised the boy's disappearance, made a mockery of the family - who are either really dumb, are so susceptible in their grief they will accept anyone into their home, or are hiding some sinister secrets - and offered up very little new for those already familiar with the story. I guess it does work better for viewers who have no idea that this extraordinary series of events even took place, but there are still some astounding revelations and dramatic turns that should fool the initiated too. It is a story that is too good to be true, and while this might seem like an obvious statement, the accounts are so cloudy that we feel like we can no longer accept what is perceived to be the truth. Manipulation is part of what makes this such an engrossing study, and the fact that something like this has taken place really is hard to process. Also, the way the film is structured, edited and scored, it rivals some of the great whodunit mysteries. It is bewildering, edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

What is fantastic about this documentary is that from the opening minutes we are introduced to Frederic Bourdin, and privileged to his recount of how he prepared to steal Nicholas' identity and managed to convince his family that he was their missing son, so the film never leaves the identity of the boy a mystery to us. Nicholas disappeared and the boy picked up by his family is not Nicholas. But, the mystery becomes so much more twisted and we realise this is just the beginning. Frederic is welcomed home - he bears a lot of the same traits and distinguishing features, including purely by chance, a gap between his teeth - but he has a strange accent and an oddly present five o'clock shadow.

FBI Agents and PI's sensed there was something amiss, and because no DNA test had been made before Nicholas left Spain, there was really no proof of his identity, beyond the family's acceptance. They set about proving his identity. But questions start to mount. If this isn't Nicholas, then who is he? Why were the family so convinced that he was their son/brother? What actually happened to Nicholas? Was his disappearance linked to the family? There are twists you will never see coming, and just imagining where this story could have gone, and how unfathomable that would have been, is enough to provoke an endless series of deliberations and discussions. Essential viewing.

My Rating: ★★★★★

1 comment:

  1. It is a wonderful documentary. I too was a little worried about Layton's treatment of the family. I don't think it is something that you could easily get around, especially as they appear in the film.

    I just love how taut the story is. It must have been a bitch to structure.