The Lost Leonardo [AFI DOCS Review]

“Power is never neutral.” So says one of the interview subjects in The Last Leonardo. That sums up the theme of the movie, which focuses on what may or may not be a previously-unknown about painting by da Vinci. The subject might sound dry to people who aren't into the art scene, but this engrossing documentary plays like a great detective story. Plenty of unexpected twists and turns guarantee that you'll get wrapped up.

Three sections comprise the film. The first details how the painting – called the Salvator Mundi – was found in New Orleans, as well as the efforts of experts to determine whether it's a real-deal da Vinci. To several, it's very clearly authentic, whereas others insist that too much about it doesn't align with his work or the material he used for his creations.

That debate in itself is dramatic. Then The Lost Leonardo moves into its second section, which investigates how the painting was sold, with various entities taking measures to dramatically increase its financial worth, despite the fact that a final determination on its origin still hasn't been made. Here, we learn about the wheeling and dealing of the art world, where the impression of value is almost as important as value itself. Because only the extremely wealthy can afford to purchase something like this, a certain amount of ego is involved.

The final section is the most surprising, as it delves into the idea of art ownership as power. This unverified painting ends up selling for $450 million at Christie's. Mystery surrounds the buyer. Once that person is identified, the movie explores how/why this individual may leverage the Salvator Mundi for personal gain. You can Google it if you really want to know, but I won't spoil who bought it because I didn't know in advance and that added a layer of intrigue.

The Lost Leonardo mixes these segments together beautifully, giving viewers an enlightening portrait of how the discovery of a potential painting from a master becomes less about the beauty of the work and more about who controls it. Priceless art, we learn, provides an owner with a sense of power. They can use it as a financial asset to profit from, decide where/when it can be shown to the public, and benefit from association with it. Whereas the average person looks at a painting and appreciates the visual, many in the art community have much more complicated reactions.

By the movie's end, some questions have answers and some don't. Discovering how this painting went from obscurity to fetching nearly half a billion dollars at auction is part of the mystique. Briskly directed by Andreas Koefoed, The Lost Leonardo offers a captivating peek inside a world most of us will never see up close.

out of four

The Lost Leonardo is unrated, but contains some adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.