The Lost Leonardo – captivating portrait of a 450 million dollar painting

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So captivating is the documentary The lost Leonardo, you can imagine the namesake Leonardo DiCaprio featured in the dramatization. Or you could, but for the fact that he’s already playing himself – a catchy little cameo in a movie the main ones of which include the Saudi royal family, a Russian oligarch, Oxford University, Emmanuel Macron, international financiers , investigative journalists, a group of frenzied art historians, a Geneva dealer on a unicycle, the FBI, the CIA and both Leonardo da Vinci (perhaps) and Jesus Christ.

The latter is the subject of “Salvator Mundi”, the religious study allegedly carried out by Leonardo and on which he came across in 2005 as an uncredited wreck. Twelve years later, DiCaprio appears in a Christie’s marketing spot – a true work of art in itself – enthusiastically viewing what would soon become the most expensive painting in history ($ 450.3 million, fresh included).

The arc of the image itself is captured not only in its price tag, but also in the way it moves. In 2005, it was transported across Manhattan in a trash bag, a $ 1,100 curiosity discovered at an auction near the New Orleans flea market. Sure it would be New Orleans, a place apparently taken like so many facts in this film from the pages of an airport thriller. The pace is dazzling, the impossible soon said out loud – the master said he had done most of the portrait.

From the start, there are dissidents. In London, the National Gallery calls him Leonardo. Believers and skeptics of the art world are getting down to it. Professional wrestling fans, take advantage.

This is all just the first act. The material is a gift. He still needs context and rhythm. A particular skill also lies in the re-presentation of what has already been a news item. Either way, what we have here – directed by Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed – is a humdinger. Casting is part of the secret – the old-fashioned business of talking heads being given a daring new life. Impartial observers make a shrill Greek refrain. And, given the stakes, more than you might expect from the main players appearing on camera. Just bagging the interviews is a hit.

But the film is also a triumph of structure. Coincidentally, I saw him a few nights after a cover of Chinese district, rightly hailed as a gold standard in screenwriting. The resemblance is striking. In both films, what begins as a sort of detective story darkens and changes shape with each reveal. We move from art to the neighboring kingdom of extreme wealth. Russian billionaire collector Dmitry Rybolovlev’s entanglement with Swiss intermediary Yves Bouvier is not just a ripe subplot; it also highlights the obscurity of global finance.

A journalist takes photos of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” after its unveiling at Christie’s in New York, 2017 © Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

You begin The lost Leonardo in the hope of knowing if Leonardo really painted “Salvator Mundi”. Eventually, other issues take over – the mysteries of the free port gray zone; the perennial question of how, why and for whom art is valuable. The unknown becomes the unknowable. In this story, all interests are vested and the most esteemed authorities can, at best, take care of it.

But one indisputable fact is power, the kind for which even money is only a proxy. Again, the drama comes from the record – a successful auction, the strangest twists yet. Yes The lost Leonardo were fictional, a spoiler warning would precede the mention of its current owner – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or at least that’s what one speculates.) DiCaprio’s fear before the painting was just one performance. Now no one can measure their true response without a private invitation from Saudi royalty. Forget it Jake, this is Chinatown.


In UK cinemas from September 10; in American theaters now

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Margarita B. Bittner

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