Mona Lisa Is Missing (Midair Rose Productions, NR)

monalisamissingMedeiros puts himself front and center in this story, but fortunately, he’s a charming host and travel companion.

 

“The Mona Lisa is simply the most important single painting in the world” are the first words spoken in Mona Lisa Is Missing, a new documentary by Joe Medeiros. It’s an arguable point, of course, but also a good set-up for the rest of the film, which examines the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.

Vincenzo Peruggia, a housepainter from Dumenza, Italy, was working in France when he stole the Mona Lisa. This much is not in dispute; the real question is why. Various theories have been floated—to sell it for money, to return the painting to what Peruggia believed to be its rightful home in Italy, as revenge against French snobs who called him a “dirty macaroni”—and Mona Lisa Is Missing takes you on a journey with director/writer/producer Medeiros as he attempts to get at the bottom of this mystery.

Medeiros puts himself front and center in this story, but fortunately, he’s a charming host and travel companion. That charm seems to have served him well, because Medeiros apparently had no problem finding people to assist him in his quest, from a slew of volunteer translators to several of Peruggia’s descendants, including his 84-year-old daughter, who is a winning presence on screen.

For all the detail Medeiros provides about the crime itself, the most interesting aspect of Mona Lisa Is Missing is his exploration of the context in which it occurred. For instance, we’re used to high security in museums, complete with alarm systems that go off if you so much as lean too close to a painting. However, in 1911, paintings were simply hung on hooks on the wall, to make them easier to remove in case of fire. The guards at the Louvre apparently didn’t take their job so seriously in the old days, either, as signs were once posted saying “If the guard is asleep, please wake him up.”

The status of the Mona Lisa has also changed over the years. Today, if you visit the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is displayed in isolation, the better to accommodate the many camera- and cell phone-toting tourists who simply must have their own digital snapshot. One wonders if they consider how many masterpieces of equal or greater value they rushed past, aided by helpful signs pointing the way to the Mona Lisa, to get a glimpse at the one everyone has heard of. Ironically, Perrugia’s theft resulted in an outpouring of publicity for the Mona Lisa, and thus helped establish it as not just one great painting among many, but as the painting among paintings.

Peruggia makes good use of archival materials and incorporates an impressive number of voices in his film, but sometimes tries much too hard to make the story personal. For instance, did we really need to see his granddaughter trying out the bed in a hotel room where her father once stayed? Or Medeiros serving dinner with a replica of the Mona Lisa concealed beneath the tablecloth, just to show that it could be done? Or Medeiros’s wife in her underwear, rubbing her eyes and declaring that she just got up? Too many of those types of scenes are included, and they sometimes give this film the feeling of a really expensive home movie, an impression at odds with its apparent desire to be taken seriously as an exploration of a major art theft.

Mona Lisa Is Missing is the first feature-length film for Medeiros, previously a writer and producer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Jay Leno Show. That’s a useful piece of information and it helped me figure out who is the likely target market for this documentary. My parents loved The Tonight Show (albeit the version with Johnny Carson as host) and, were they alive today, they’d probably enjoy this film, as well. I found The Tonight Show a bit lame (ah, the generation gap) and Mona Lisa Is Missing overly cutesy and insubstantial (although certainly not without its charms).

So there you have it: Mona Lisa Is Missing is not a must-see film by any means (tell the truth: Were you urgently awaiting a detailed exploration of the theft whose story is the basis for this film? Did you even know about that theft before reading this review?), nor is it a supreme example of the documentarian’s art. It is, however, an enjoyable film for those whose tastes match the filmmaker’s approach to his subject.

Extras on the DVD release include 12 featurettes, 6 deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. | Sarah Boslaugh

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