The Lost Leonardo

The Lost Leonardo, 2021, 3 ½ stars


A lost Leonardo emerges from the shadows

Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

Exclusive to MeierMovies, September 6, 2021

Oil painting was arguably the dominant visual art form from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, when it was supplanted by film. Photography gave it a run for its Monet in the 19th century, but nothing carried the prestige of paint until the full blossoming of cinema.

This discussion was central to my 2017 movie review of Loving Vincent, a wonderful marriage of oil painting and cinema. If that film represented formal nuptials between the two mediums, complete with a hundreds of guests, a choir and elaborately festooned cathedral pews, The Lost Leonardo is more of a shot-gun Vegas wedding on the heels of an out-the-window elopement. Still, a marriage is a marriage, and both forms – and films – are memorable.

Part talking-heads documentary, part reenactment, part thriller, The Lost Leonardo is the tale of how a painting of Jesus titled “Salvator Mundi” was found at a 2005 New Orleans art auction, stunningly authenticated as an original Leonard Da Vinci painting, exhibited as such at London’s National Gallery in 2011 and subsequently sold, and sold again, and again – all with the artwork’s provenance and even its authenticity still in doubt.

“There are only, by most people’s count, about 15 Leonardos known,” says Alexander Parrish, the “sleeper hunter” who found the painting. “And to say I have found a picture like this is … akin to saying, you know, I had a spaceship on my lawn last night, and I saw some unicorns.”

Director Andreas Koefoed’s film is riveting, even when it gets slightly bogged down in the political and business ends of the art world. (Admittedly, that deep dive into politics does broaden the doc’s scope.) And perhaps conscious that a lot of its details have already been revealed by the news media, the film sometimes tries too hard to invent the suspense, as did the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (when most people already knew the doc’s subject was still alive). Nevertheless, The Lost Leonardo, like the master’s paintings, carries an irresistible air of mystery, balanced by the perfect blend of darkness and light, and aided by impeccably filmed and edited interviews.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the film itself is sort of a copy, as it is actually the second documentary released this year on this subject. Director Antoine Vitkine’s Savior for Sale premiered on French television in April, two months before The Lost Leonardo debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. Or maybe it’s actually the original, as The Savior for Sale won’t get its American debut for another week. Further, Koefoed started shooting The Lost Leonardo in 2018, which means both docs were likely filming at the same time, competing to be the first. Talk about life imitating art.

But, like Orson Welles’ F for Fake, aren’t all films, even documentaries, trying to trick you to a certain degree? “How can you completely trust anything you see?” both Welles and Koefoed seem to be asking. Similarly, why are you reading this review? Perhaps I pilfered parts from other articles, or perhaps I’m on the payroll of one of the doc’s interviewees, all of whom seem to have something to prove. Clearly, when it comes to absolute honesty, society is still waiting for its savior.

© 2021 MeierMovies, LLC

For more information on the movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.