Stranger Than Fiction | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Stranger Than Fiction 

Can documentaries like The Last Leonardo work simply as popcorn entertainment?

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If you recall the earliest days of the pandemic in spring 2020, one of the first pop-culture touchstones of that era became the Netflix documentary series Tiger King. It was a satisfyingly lurid profile of unusual characters in an unusual milieu, all wrapped up with a bit of true-crime mystery. It also felt like an interesting turning point in the public relationship with the wide-ranging genre we call "documentary filmmaking."

As true-crime podcasts captured the popular imagination, it felt like the idea that documentaries were somehow like medicine—good for you, but not easy to swallow—began to shift. And while compulsively-watchable non-fiction films about real-life crimes are hardly brand new, if you go back even as far as Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line more than 30 years ago, non-fiction filmmaking seems to be walking its own thin line between delivering information and delivering entertainment.

There's no actual violence involved in the story behind Andreas Koefoed's The Lost Leonardo, and indeed there might not even actually be a crime. It's the tale of how a painting appeared at an auction in 2005, identified as "After Leonardo" in mimicking the studies begun by Leonardo Da Vinci ca. 1500 for a portrait of Jesus Christ called the Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). As restoration expert Dianne Modestini began work on the painting, she became convinced that certain stylistic details indicated that the Salvator Mundi was in fact painted by Leonardo himself. Not surprisingly, once the name of one of the world's most famous artists was attached to a brand-new discovery, things started to go a little crazy.

It's always a blessing for a filmmaker to have a story that takes plenty of dramatic twists, and Koefoed leans into the controversy over the Salvator Mundi's authenticity and the various ripple effects from that controversy. From the initial question of whether London's National Gallery did or did not provide a de facto imprimatur of authenticity by virtue of a 2008 exhibition, to a Swiss middleman pulling a slick not-exactly-con-job on a Russian oligarch when buying and re-selling Salvator Mundi, to the mystery over a buyer paying $450 million at auction, The Lost Leonardo keeps turning corners to find weird issues to explore.

The question, at least in part, is whether it discovers too many issues to explore. Other 21st-century documentaries like My Kid Could Paint That and The Price of Everything previously explored the absurdities of the contemporary art marketplace and the question of what makes a work of art valuable, which is certainly part of what Koefoed is addressing here. He also digs into the topic of "freeports"—holding facilities at airports that are used as a tax dodge—and the way stored works of art can be turned into equity for moving capital around. He pokes at the way auction houses attempt to manufacture drama around high-profile pieces. And he certainly casts just enough suspicion on several individual players to make The Lost Leonardo a mystery of intentional fraud vs. possible mistaken identity.

Each of these topics proves individually interesting, but Koefoed seems most interested in making The Lost Leonardo the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner—and it's hard to argue that he isn't successful. His filmmaking includes a fair amount of dramatized re-creation, accentuating the words of his interview subjects with images of a leather case being transferred between hands like microfilm in a spy thriller, or a woman running through a gallery. Interviews take advantage of dramatic moments with the subjects looking directly into the camera, or someone calling the Louvre to find out why a publication seeming to authenticate Salvator Mundi has been pulled from distribution. Again, many of these techniques are Errol Morris hallmarks, but there's just that slight niggling sense that Koefoed is more interested in putting on a good show than in finding any deep truths.

Even if that's true, should that be held against a movie just because it's a documentary? Is there a place within non-fiction filmmaking for the equivalent of popcorn entertainment, something that's fun to watch in the moment without offering you a website at the end where you're implored to take action? As The Lost Leonardo itself suggests, there can be many different reasons we ascribe value to art—and even if it doesn't hold up to intense scrutiny, that doesn't mean someone's trying to pull a fast one on you.

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