In a Dream

An artist's life in mosaic

The quixotic life story of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar (above) is told in his son Jeremiah’s film. The quixotic life story of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar (above) is told in his son Jeremiah’s film. (Indiepix Films)
By Laura Bennett
Globe Staff / July 3, 2009
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The streets of Isaiah Zagar’s South Philadelphia neighborhood are flush with mosaic: giddy sweeps of tessellated color that swallow whole stretches of wall. For decades, Zagar has blanketed surfaces with tiles, mirror shards, glasswork, bicycle spokes - explosive constellations unfurled from a delirious brain. “In a Dream,’’ a documentary directed by his youngest son, Jeremiah, is a love story between a man and his art, a man and his wife, and, in a way, between father and son. Jeremiah Zagar doesn’t sugarcoat his father’s infinite narcissism and social eccentricities, but he paints a tender and sensitive portrait of a modern-day Don Quixote trapped in his own grand, wifty delusions.

Isaiah looks like a mad prophet, with his furrowed face and woolly beard. He spouts lofty pronouncements about art and life and his quest for creative glory. “I was his reality base,’’ says Julia, Isaiah’s sweet, earthy wife of 43 years. “And he was my bird. He flew around.’’ But the whimsical plot darkens as Ezekiel, their moony eldest son, wrestles with drug addiction, and Isaiah reveals that he has been having an affair with his assistant. Jeremiah Zagar captures some remarkably intimate footage. We see Julia’s eyes brim when she learns of Isaiah’s infidelity, and we hear Isaiah lash out at his mistress in a moment of scathing regret.

Through it all, Isaiah sketches Julia’s face compulsively in his notebook and paints her name on the tiles in his garden. And when Ezekiel returns from rehab, Isaiah says, “No matter what happens to Zeke, he’s part of my art world.’’ Even his loved ones are bright trinkets in the landscape of his imagination.

With his mosaics, Isaiah dismantles reality, then reassembles it in vivid hues and swirling shapes. It’s an apt, eloquent metaphor that needs no amplification or embroidery. Yet when Isaiah confesses to suicide attempts and childhood molestation in scenes punctuated with footage of shattering glass and splintered tile, the analogy begins to feel a bit belabored.

Still, the sheer visual impact of “In a Dream’’ is breathtaking. The film coasts on the dizzy scale of the artwork, its kaleidoscopic colors, the stunning time-lapse shots of mosaics in bloom. Charming animation adds to the sense that Isaiah’s inner life is one elaborate hallucination.

In the end, Isaiah’s mania is absolute, his delusions unscathed. There is no moment of reckoning or tragic clash with the real world. As Julia and Isaiah wander through an abandoned warehouse in a final scene, our eye follows the gutted ceiling, the sprawl of the blank walls. “You need to think about what it could be,’’ Isaiah says. And we do.

Laura Bennett can be reached at

IN A DREAM Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Isaiah Zagar, Julia Zagar, Ezekiel Zagar

Running time: 85 minutes

At: Museum of Fine Arts


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