By Jed Blaugrund
3.5 stars (out of 4)
“The Lost Leonardo”
Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Andres Koefoed
Unrated (mild profanity), 95 minutes
There are moments in the new documentary “The Lost Leonardo” that are as suspenseful as anything you’re likely to see this year, yet not one of these moments involves Spider-Man. In fact, they take place during a Christie’s art auction, and not since “North by Northwest” has the buying and selling of art felt so cinematic. Such fundamentally human priorities as money and reputation are very much at stake, so it is impossible not to feel both astonished and irked when all of the bidding is through.
All of this high-end hubbub revolves around the Salvator Mundi, a long-lost masterpiece painted by Leonardo Da Vinci sometime around 1500. Or was it? The badly restored painting was discovered in a small auction in New Orleans by a couple of savvy New York art dealers. The purchase price? Just over $10,000. The dealers soon realized they might have a gold mine on their hands and hired Dianne Modestini, a world-renowned art conservationist, to restore the painting properly. Modestini remains convinced that the painting is an authentic Da Vinci.
There are a lot of people – Da Vinci scholars, art historians, museum curators, bank executives and established collectors – who all believe the painting is authentic. One voice of dissent, and a funny one at that, is Jerry Saltz, an art critic with a blunt assessment of the painting’s authenticity and value as art. Even those who believe the painting is an original Da Vinci feel that the quality restorative work of Modestini is more represented on the canvas than Da Vinci’s original hand.
But, the “is it real or isn’t it” is just the start. “The Lost Leonardo” is also about the business of art collecting, including its value as a tax dodge. One of the film’s most compelling and controversial sources is Yves Bouvier, a Swiss businessman who we witness making a fortune selling art to a Russian oligarch at questionably inflated prices. Bouvier also started a company in Geneva that legally stores paintings and other valuables in giant vaults and away from the prying eyes of international tax collectors. His is just one of many, many fascinating voices at the center of this twisty and captivating true mystery.
One of the most pleasurable yet frustrating aspects of film is that it doesn’t provide all of the answers. The viewer ends up knowing just as much as the filmmakers, and some questions do remain. Is the painting authentic? What does the current owner plan to do with it? And, exactly where is the painting now? After all, it hasn’t been seen publicly since its sale in 2017 and was a no-show at a Da Vinci retrospective at the Louvre in 2019. As a result, the film feels premature and incomplete. One has to wonder if it would have been even more effective with a bit more research, especially concerning exactly how the painting emigrated from Europe to New Orleans in the first place.
The interviews and visual transitions sometimes feel a bit padded and redundant, and I think I’ve seen enough footage of paintings being crated to last me a lifetime. The film also travels on trivial tangents now and then, although the history of the Mona Lisa’s emergence as an art world superstar and how it involved Jacqueline Kennedy is a fascinating bit of presidential trivia.
It should be mentioned that the one Leonardo who is NOT lost in this film is Leonardo DiCaprio, who makes a very amusing cameo in a way that is both unexpected and not surprising in equal measure.
It’s rare to leave a film these days feeling smarter than before seeing it. “The Lost Leonardo” is a welcome exception to this recent trend.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.