“In a Dream,” a remarkable documentary about the Philadelphia artist/muralist Isaiah Zagar, belongs in the company of “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Tarnation,” two other excellent real-life “home movies. ” Although this film does not have the criminal element of “Friedmans,” or the intense sexual dimension of “Tarnation,” filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar’s portrait of his father battling demons past and present is just as astonishing.
Much of the film was shot in the Zagar home and studio — spaces in which every wall is covered with fabulous murals made with broken mirrors, lettered tiles and other shards, all shaped into representational faces and objects, all vibrantly colored. There is considerable time in the film dedicated to showing Isaiah mixing, breaking, washing and creating his work. In addition, several animated episodes portray the playful, fantastic, dream-like world the Zagars inhabit.
Isaiah’s murals are more than designs; they chronicle — literally mirror — the lives of the family. They provide the Zagars a sensation of “nesting.” As Isaiah says, “I impregnate my work with my life.” As a portfolio of his art, “In a Dream” is superb. A slow-motion tracking shot through rooms in his studio is as impressive and illuminating as a sped-up sequence showing him creating a mural.
Jeremiah, the family’s younger son, takes on the project — and it is quite a project — of making the film, in part, he says, because his mother Julia tells him, “Film your father. It’s important.” Her words have a prescient quality about them, and in the film’s second act, they truly resonate.
Part one of “In a Dream” shows Jeremiah interviewing his dad, who discusses his life candidly. Isaiah admits, “I am exposing myself to you because it’s what you want — and yes, it’s what I want to, to understand.” What he reveals is that, at age 29, he attempted suicide. While institutionalized, he polished brass and cleaned mirrors. The work gave him “sustenance,” he says, and put him on the path to create what have become the murals that comprise his life’s art/work.
Isaiah soon drops another bombshell, this time involving a man who took him fishing as a child and played with Isaiah’s penis once their lines were in the water. However, Zagar almost shrugs off this event, saying, “[My] life is filled with events, which all become stories.”
Isaiah’s image throughout the first half of “In a Dream” is one of an eccentric, hippy artist. As Julia describes her husband being a sensualist “pushing the envelope of sexuality” in his work, photos flash of him kissing men. Yet as he frequently features penises, breasts and vaginas in his artwork, one cannot help but deem these playful images as a response of coping with the abuse Zagar suffered as a child.
Part two of this compelling documentary shifts gears away from Isaiah and onto the family as a whole. Ezekial (Zeke), the older son, has returned home after splitting from his wife, and soon enters a rehab facility. On the day Julia and Isaiah go to collect Zeke, Isaiah reveals that after 43 years of marriage, he is having an affair. These two threads — the addiction and the adultery — test the family, and Jeremiah artfully captures the anguish these events cause the Zagars.
As Zeke draws parallels from his divorce to his parents’ separation, Jeremiah records the pain and rage Isaiah experiences as the family situation develops. These are difficult, albeit captivating moments that may prompt viewers to think back to Isaiah’s past mental instability.
If “In a Dream” acts as a kind of family therapy, the film actually benefits from this approach. Jeremiah’s closeness to his subjects enables them to open up, because they trust him. His parents display an amazing willingness to discuss a private matter publicly.
Furthermore, Jeremiah never crosses an inappropriate line with his family, nor does he seem biased in his presentation of the events. He obviously loves his mother, cares about his brother and has a form of hero worship towards his father — even if some of that affection dissipates as he learns about his father through making this film.
Lovingly made, and featuring a haunting score that draws viewers into the beautiful images, “In a Dream” provides a heartrending portrait of a flawed but fascinating artist, father and husband. This film is not to be missed.