In a Dream: Docu about Isaiah Zagar, Eccentric, Tormented Artist

Isaiah Zagar, the eccentric, tormented artist, who has created numerous mosaics in the bohemian neighbourhood of South Philadelphia, is the subject of a touching and insightful documentary, aptly titled “In a Dream.”

The movie world-premiered at the South By South West (SXSW) Film Fest and Conference, where it won the Emerging Visions Award.

Don’t expect from “In a dream” a full or smooth portrait that depicts and explains the artist’s background, motivation and evolution.  That said, the non-fictional feature is deeply personal, offering a chronicle of love and betrayal, family bonds, and dysfunctionality of various kind and intensity.  You could say that the vivid color of Zagar’s mosaics is matched by the film’s vibrant color.

Though not as brilliant as Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb,” “In a Dream” should make a nice companion piece of a double bill about the inner and outer lives of artists, with plenty of insights into the human condition, specifically into the pain, anguish, joy of the creative process.

In this vibrant region, 50,000-square feet of concrete are covered with tile and mirrors.  They are murals that chronicle Zagar’s love for his wife, Julia, subtly hinting at the darker sides of a vivid imagination.  A former Peace Corps volunteer, who has become an icon in South Philly’s art community, Isaiah is obsessive and narcissistic, almost the opposite from his wife, who’s gracious and warm.

For decades, their opposing natures complemented one another perfectly.  Then, quite suddenly, the family is torn apart.  A few hours before picking up his oldest son from a rehabilitation center, Isaiah confesses to an affair with his assistant, and Julia kicks out of the house.  After that traumatic event, he begins a spiral down, straight into severe depression.

The lives of the family members are exposed and revealed in broken bits and pieces, just like the structure dreams, just like the bits of ceramics that Isaiah uses for his own art.  And just like his art works, at the end, they coalesced into a more coherent image, defined by tragic sadness as well as lyrical beauty.