Documentary Review: Another take on “The Lost Leonardo” — “Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?”

The French documentary “Savior for Sale” came out in France before the very fine theatrical documentary “The Lost Leonardo” hit theaters.

As the films are about exactly the same subject — the “discovery,” epic resales and scandalous politicking involved in trying to bums-rush the authentication of a painting labeled “The Male ‘Mona Lisa'” — the filmmakers interview many of the same subjects, cover much the same ground and lean on many of the same visuals in telling this story of the insular world of high-end art, “full of people trying to make huge amounts of money out of (very very) rich people.”

We see the same Christie’s Auction House video montage (a different sample) of wide-eyed/teary-eyed visitors, members of the general public, awed in the presence of this “lost masterpiece” about to be auctioned off in New York. The filmmakers — Andreas Koefoed for “Leonardo,” Antoine Vitkine made “Savior for Sale” — even use the same graphics in tracking the travels of this tale of how this damaged, “paint-over” painting of Jesus, perhaps painted by Leonardo Da Vinci himself, perhaps assisted by or wholly painted by his workshop, perhaps neither, came to sell for $450 million, including commission.

If you saw “The Lost Leonardo,” as I did, you probably don’t need to stream or catch “Savior for Sale.” They’re damned near identical. But the French film is more thorough, more blunt, has more edge and takes a firmer stand on the “Lost Leonardo” than “The Lost Leonardo.”

To recap, this very old and damaged painting was “discovered” in New Orleans, exhibited in London, sold to a Russian oligarch, re-sold to the murderous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for a staggering sum and negotiated into an exhibition at the Louvre, which declined to authenticate it or give it standing alongside their most prized painting, the “Mona Lisa.”

The arc of “Savior” throws the British endorsement of the painting by the “ambitious curator” of the National Gallery in London (Luke Syson) into sharp opposition with the French officials who “courageously” who rebuffed it and questioned its authenticity.

“Savior” comes off as more jingoistic, as if the French, Guardians of World Culture, are refighting the Hundred Years War and Napoleonic Wars all over again with those gauche Brits and their American offspring. Monty Python would certainly see it that way.

But Vitkine interviewed the heir of the Louisiana owner, and shows where the painting was hung in the family’s New Orleans home. He got an actual interview with the Russian oligarch, Dmitri Rybolovev, who was talked into buying it by his slippery Swiss go-between, Yves Bouvier.

Vitkine labels the various principals, aka “usual suspects” (my term), “The Expert,” “The Curator (Syson),” “The Journalist (New York Times reporter Scott Reyburn).” One art historian, a Belgian advisor (Chris Dercon) to the Saudis, who envision the world beating a path to their blood-stained museum doors, is even labeled “The Mercenary.”

He laughs a lot in the film. Let’s hope he laughed at that description.

“Lost Leonardo” spends a lot more time on the restorer (Dianne Dwyer Modestini), who may have “restored” the work to look more Da Vinci-like, perhaps inadvertently. “Savior” spends more time on the 17th century Wenceslaus Hollar etching that is supposedly based on it, and gives voice to a leading academic skeptic (Matthew Landrus) who is asked about any trepidations he might have about speaking out about how this probably wasn’t painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

“Savior” has two interviewees speak behind masks or in shadow, Louvre experts talking about French doubts as to the painting’s authenticity and true value and Saudi efforts to bribe “Salvator Mundi” into international acceptance.

Because MBS has already shown a willingness to have his critics murdered.

Having reviewed “The Lost Leonardo,” I was going to pass “Savior for Sale” by. But I found the French film (Was it made for French TV?) engrossing and more informative, “Leonardo” more touching and poetic. You can see and feel why people got swept up in the presence of a painting of Jesus by the great Renaissance polymath in “Leonardo.” That business that art expert Martin Kemp, an expert extensively interviewed for both films, speaks of as “the presence” of a “real Leonardo,” comes through much more clearly in that film.

Kemp, whose early endorsement played a key role in pushing a painting purchased for $1175 one year into selling for $127.5 million, then $450 million a couple of years later, gets more of a roughing up in “Savior for Sale.”

If you’re limiting yourself to one film on the subject, I’d suggest the more thorough “Savior.” But you come away from either documentary with the same smirking dismay of how gullible and stupid the stupidly rich let themselves be in the presence of the denizens of The World of Fine Collectible Art, who may live by the ethos “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but say the phrase with the poshest (British, French or Italian) accent imaginable.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Robert Simon, Scott Reyburn, Martin Kemp, Luke Syson, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Matthew Landrus, Chris Dercon, Yves Bouvier, Dmitri Rybolovev, Loïc Gouzer

Credits: Directed by Antoine Vitkine. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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