Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"The Imposter"

 4 / 5 

When he was 13, Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his Texas hometown while on his way home from a game of basketball. 

Almost four years later, he reappeared.  But not in Texas -- in Spain.

The blond-haired, all-American kid suddenly had brown hair and spoke with a thick French accent.

His blue eyes?  They were brown, too.

And that beard he shaved as closely as possible sure made him look a lot older than 16.

The Spanish police didn’t think he was Nicholas.

The State Department didn’t think he was Nicholas.

The FBI, called in to investigate this young man's story about where he had been for three and a half years, didn’t think he was Nicholas.

But, inexplicably, his family did.  For nearly a year, a 24-year-old man named Frederic Bourdin passed himself off as Nicholas.  He claimed he had been kidnapped, flown to Europe, tortured and sexually molested with other boys, subjected to chemical experiments that changed the color of his eyes – and that his abductors had forced him to quit speaking English, which explained his accent.

None of it makes sense, and in the documentary The Imposter, even the filmmakers seem perplexed.  They use convincing dramatizations to recreate the incidents and talk a lot with Bourdin himself, as well as the family.

The fact that no one can explain how this happens – but everyone, from the FBI on down, has excuses – is part of the deep fascination and mystery at the core of The Imposter.   We all know we can believe something so much we force it to be true, or at least true enough.  Could everyone in the family have wanted to believe this so very much that they were willing to overlook something like the color of Nicholas’s eyes?

Or might there be a deeper, even darker secret lurking here?  Might Bourdin have stumbled into territory too uncomfortable even for his warped mind?

As he tells the story about why and how he developed his ruse, Bourdin is at turns hateful and charming.  Nicholas’s family, particularly his sister, come across less well than the criminal himself – simpletons at the very least, schemers at the very worst.

And that’s where this twisted, true-life tale – which was even reported by local news at face value – turns even more fascinating.  There are more than a few moments when The Imposter pulls a Hitchcock-like twist and has you perhaps not rooting for Bourdin but definitely seeing things from his perspective.  On the other hand, it offers some moments with him that might make your blood run cold; he’s bizarre, unpredictable and challenging – then again, so is Nicholas’s family.

The Imposter begins with an incident so preposterous it could only be true, and ends with a question mark so outlandish that you’re left wondering about everything you just saw and whether you can really trust what you see and hear – because, clearly, you can’t always trust the way you feel.

Viewed 12/4/12 on Virgin-Atlantic VS23

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