The Power of Belief (and the State of Texas) – NZFF Day 5

I started the fifth day of the festival with the documentary-meets-true-crime-thriller The Imposter. The movie tells the true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French Algerian con artist obsessed with passing himself off as children. This pathology came to a head when he successfully stole the identity of a 16 year old American boy, Nicholas Barclay, who’d been missing from his hometown in Texas for 4 years. Though he obviously had the physique and coloring of a full-grown Spaniard, Bourdin managed to convince Spanish authorities, international agencies, the FBI, and even Barclay’s own family that he was the older version of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired youth. He successfully convinced authorities that he had been kidnapped from his hometown in Texas by an international child sex ring with ties to high-ranking military and political officials, and was given an American passport and allowed to be brought ‘home’ by his newly-adopted family. He even attended high school and spoke openly to the media about his story!

(WARNING: You probably shouldn’t read past this point if you actually want to see the film – and believe me, you do – so you should probably skip down to the final paragraph and ignore this part. Just FYI.) Eventually doubts began to surface about his identity, but when the FBI informed the family and requested DNA samples they were met with an unprecedented amount of resistance. Questions begin to surface about whether the family knew they were harboring an imposter, and if so, what that meant about their knowledge (or possible involvement with) Nicholas’s disappearance. Suddenly the film takes a 180 degree turn, and the family are no longer simple victims but possible co-conspirators.

The most incredible thing about The Imposter is that it reads like a movie script, but the story is entirely true. Bourdin’s deception is impressive in itself, but I don’t think even a screenwriter could have concocted such a karmic connection between two groups of potential con artists. The directors manage to successfully meld together two genres by interspersing interviews with family members, FBI agents, international officials, and Bourdin himself with creative (and creepy) re-enactments. The creepiest part of the story is that it is shaped and narrated by Bourdin himself, who looks directly into the camera and tells his story with such honesty and eloquence that you’ll be taken aback. Despite his thoroughly disturbing pathology, Bourdin comes across as a normal, smart, calm individual with a deep understanding of the human mind. He doesn’t feel creepy, or give off the strange vibes that often warn us when someone isn’t quite what they seem. The Barclay family is equally as eloquent despite being from small-town Texas, and its members are strangely calm about the events that changed their lives. All of this adds to the feeling that something’s not quite right in the state of Denmark (or, in this case, Texas). A unique, creepy, fascinating, surreal film experience with all sorts of questions about perception and the power of belief. Definitely worth seeing.

I spent the second half of my night with Bernie, a comical yet sweet mock-documentary about a small-town Texas undertaker with a heart of gold and a big secret. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a real-life character with an enormous personality who found himself one of the most popular men in Carthage, Texas (population 6,700) thanks to his mile-wide smile, unfailing generosity, and good ‘ole Christian niceness. The movie follows him as he spends his days earnestly participating in the community — directing (and acting in) in the local musical theater troupe, leading the church as head choir boy, advising yokels on their tax deductions (and filing them on their behalf), making curtains for old ladies, founding regional art festivals, and overseeing the all-important Christmas nativity show — all on top of his duties organizing local funeral services. And there’s no ulterior motive here: Bernie is, as the locals describe him, one of the sweetest men you’ll ever meet. And then there’s local octogenarian Margorie Nugent, the “meanest woman in Texas” who’d “rip you a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, double-wide trailer asshole” and had her nose so high “she’d drown in a rainstorm.” When Bernie goes to comfort her after the death of her husband, a relationship begins that starts with Marjorie lavishing him with gifts and first-class trips – even making him the heir to her estate – and ends with her becoming increasingly more controlling and jealous of his time and attention. Feeling trapped and desperate, Bernie one day finds himself shooting Mrs. Nugent four times in the back – and then sobbing desperately as he comes to his senses. So he stuffs her in the freezer underneath the flounder and chicken pot pies and goes about using her money to buy children’s playgrounds and fund church renovations while convincing everyone she was in a nursing home. For nine months.

The best part about the film is that the most bizarre aspects are the most true. Bernie Tiede is actually serving life in a Texas state prison for murdering Mrs. Nugent. The trial lawyers really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. They really did find Marjorie Nugent in her freezer, on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken pot pies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. And they really did have to wait two days to do the autopsy because it took her that long to thaw. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the case was the fact that they moved the trial to an entirely different county – not because the case was so notorious, but because they felt the jury wouldn’t convict him because he was so well liked!

True, it’s a comedic, quasi-documentarial view of a murderer/murderee relationship. But darn if it isn’t a good one! The director utilized real townspeople in his interviews, and their reactions and memories are palpably real and always hilarious. Shirley MacLaine plays a stellar Mrs. Nugent (I mean duh, she’s Shirley MacLaine!), Matthew McConaughey does his best as an out-for-blood DA Danny Buck, and Jack Black definitely scores the role of his career in playing Bernie. His Tiede is a closeted (probably) gay man with a heart of gold and more energy than anyone should ever be entitled to, whose attention to Marjorie is good-natured and puppy-dog earnest. Jack can’t totally manage to hide his personality, but insofar as he can disappear into any role he manages to do a stellar job with this one – in fact, the extra ‘oomph’ he gives Bernie only adds to his character. It’s a comedy with a healthy dash of reality and lots of larger-than-life Texas characters. And it might even make you think about some bigger issues, too.

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3 thoughts on “The Power of Belief (and the State of Texas) – NZFF Day 5

  1. Barry says:

    You are engendering a flood of memories Lass: In my first few years in Germany, I went to many movies with a friend who was the assistant director on Cabaret, Roller Ball, Steppenwolf, Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and several other films made in Munich by American companies.

    My friend held a nonstop commentary of the setup and shooting of scenes throughout most movies we saw – very little about the story line.

    And I have a suggestion for a potential field of study for you after having read your rapt review of “A Good Man”: Perhaps you should consider becoming a choreologist. I have only known one choreologist; about 26 or 8 years ago in Munich. She had attended the, then, only existent school for choreology – which just happened to be in London.

    Oh, and you have thus far penned a bit over 52,600 words in your New Zealand Travelogue. ;-}

    • ClaireAmelia says:

      As much as I love film, I tend to have a limited reserve of patience for movie snobs with too much to say about camera angles and mise-en-scène – particularly those who feel the need to talk through movies! Biggest pet peeve ever (just ask my mom)! Not to say that your friend was a snob, but I don’t know that I would have enjoyed seeing movies with him ;) I’m sure he had all sorts of amazing stories about the films he worked on, though. You’ve had so many fascinating experiences and relationships!

  2. Barry says:

    Interesting and valid take from the perspective of simply wanting entertainment; but bear in mind that he was actually the one setting up and directing many of the scenes for the movies. When it’s the guy who did it, not just an arm chair pontificator, it puts it in a bit of a different perspective for me. For instance: I don’t know if you have seen Roller Ball, but he was running on and off the track directing those sequences – and they really were riding motorcycles on the track, and they were using a 30 pound ball. In that film, he directed all the action sequences; he was one of the major players who made the film what it was. For what it’s worth.

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