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(Filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s The Lost Leonardo is in theaters now via Sony Pictures Classics. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Andreas Koefoed’s The Lost Leonardo is definitely a stranger than fiction documentary. For anyone who loves art, Leonardo Davinci is the ultimate artist. Only 15 of his original paintings remain in the world, and the controversial 16th was discovered in an unassuming auction in Louisiana in 2005. Koefoed follows the painting through four owners, three museums, a yacht, and hundreds of millions of dollars in appreciation. Though the filmmaking style is uninspiringly straightforward, the doc is elevated by its resonant themes of greed, nationalism and cultural superiority. It’s a story that’s too improbable to be true, built on a premise that is tested at every turn: is the Salvator Mundi painting a real Leonardo? Or do a lot of people just really want it to be?

The plotting of the film is fast-paced with new surprises at every turn. Split into sections, the film begins with the painting’s discovery and restoration, which leaves many clues to its origins. Initially, no museum would purchase it because of its murky provenance (lineage of ownership). But as interest in the painting swells, certain institutions such as the National Gallery, Christie’s auction house and even the Louvre all authenticate it. We follow a painting that’s fame and value continues to grow with each new chapter, eventually eclipsing the most expensive art sale ever at $450 million by a Saudi Prince.

Koefoed employs a mix of techniques to tell his story. The animations, illustrations and visual FX are top notch, and the reenactments are slickly done. But does every documentary these days have to start with its interviewees fumbling about, settling into their chairs before they realize the camera is recording? While certain aspects felt a bit cliché, the editing (by Nicolas Nørgaard Staffolani) works when it shows one interviewee’s stoic or smiling face as another character references them. The variety of talking heads — from art critics to CIA intelligence officers — are all entertaining and seemingly bright. One of the more eccentric skeptics is Jerry Saltz, who attempts to shake some sense into the viewer through the screen. He writes over an image of the painting, “NOT ART”.

Whether the painting is ‘real’ or not becomes less fascinating than the political powers at play. If you want to enhance the cultural capital of your country, owning the ‘male Mona Lisa’ may be the best way to do it. Between Russian Oligarchs, ‘Freeport’ safe havens in Geneva, and massive art installations in the Saudi Arabian desert, The Lost Leonardo bristles with international intrigue. As a piece of cinematic art, the film feels perhaps like a glossy replica rather than a true masterpiece. But the multi-layered, ripped-from-the-headlines story it tells is well worth watching.

– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)

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Matt Delman is the Editor-at-large for Hammer to Nail, spearheading the redesign and relaunch of the site in January 2020. Delman has been a frequent contributor since 2015, with boots on the ground at film festivals across North America. He also runs a boutique digital marketing agency, 3rd Impression, that specializes in social media advertising for independent film. He was recently featured in Filmmaker Magazine for his innovative digital strategies.

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