The Lost Leonardo | ★★★★½ | Opens Friday, Sep. 10
In 2005, a painting at an obscure New Orleans auction house was purchased for $1,175 and sent by UPS to New York City for restoration. In 2017, the same painting sold at a Christie’s auction for $450 million, by far the most expensive work of art ever sold at public auction.
What happened in the years between is chronicled in The Lost Leonardo, one of the most flat-out fascinating documentary films you’ll ever see. It’s several movies in one, really—an art-world doc that morphs into a historical mystery, a gray-market crime caper, and finally an indictment of power and greed at the highest levels.
Along the way we meet earnest art lovers, oily middlemen, obnoxious critics, crusading investigative reporters, crooked curators, obsessed FBI agents, angry Russian oligarchs, and even a few heads of state.
The controversy around this famous painting, known as the Salvator Mundi, played out in the headlines a few years back. But if you don’t know about it, that’s actually a good thing. I didn’t know much, either, and it’s better to let the film present the many surprises in store.
The salient fact is that soon after that New Orleans auction the painting was authenticated, kind of, as the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Since there are only around 15 da Vinci paintings in the world, this was a Very Big Deal.
Danish director Andreas Koefoed makes all the right choices for telling this story. He paces the film like a mystery thriller, using disciplined disclosure of information to keep the audience hooked. The cinematography is dynamic and inventive. For instance, thanks to drone cameras, we get to peek into an NYC penthouse studio from just outside the window. His talking-head interview segments are immaculately composed—little paintings in themselves—and deeply revealing.
Koefoed deploys an ingenious strategy here. After the various interview subjects tell their version of a key event—a suspicious transaction, a dubious decision—Koefoed keeps the camera rolling for a beat or two, the way you might hold someone’s gaze, if you think they just lied to you.
The motion picture camera is famously good at revealing buried emotions, and several of the interviewees here clearly feel guilty about something. One greasy banker essentially telegraphs his thoughts: I know I’m talking bullshit, but do you know I’m talking bullshit?
It’s so much fun. The film also uses clever framing and juxtaposition to suggest where its sympathies lie. The mercenary European businessmen are filmed in their spooky One Percenter hives, smoking cigars and prowling high-security warehouse vaults. Those deemed relatively innocent, like the restoration artist who initially cleaned up the painting, are interviewed in comfortable domestic spaces or green gardens.
This sort of oblique commentary is common enough in documentaries, but director Koefoed really leans into it. The result is a true-story film that is technically quite even-handed, but which also provides some almost subliminal narrative traction. We get the sense of heroes and villains, even as the camera interrogates everyone with a skeptical eye. Interestingly, the people who come off best are the investigative journalists who try to untangle the whole mess. They look most comfortable in front of the lens.
The Lost Leonardo works on several levels and in the end it’s a rather ferocious indictment of how we determine value in our culture. But mostly it’s just a hell of a ride, a mystery wrapped in a scandal and dropped into a rabbit hole of shady-ass rich people. And that makes for a good time at the movies.
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