October 13, 2013

"The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, The True Story" documents an art crime and a writer's obsession to understand motive

Joe and Justine Medeiros in Hollywood
 at the Arclight Documentary Festival
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

“The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, The True Story”, winner of the award for Best Historical Documentary in the San Antonio Film Festival, provides clarity on how and why an immigrant housepainter, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre in 1911.

Written and directed by Joe Medeiros and produced by his wife Justine, this documentary of a Parisian art theft tells the story of one writer’s obsession that lead him to a Northern Italian village to meet the art thief’s only living offspring, 84-year-old Celestina. Joe Medeiros hoped that Peruggia’s daughter could explain why her father, an immigrant painter living in Paris, had stolen the da Vinci masterpiece from the Salon CarrĂ© and hidden it for two years. Was Peruggia a patriot who believed he was returning a masterpiece Napoleon had stolen from Italy? Or was he an ordinary criminal looking to make a fortune? Unfortunately, Celestina did not remember her father who had died of a heart attack in Paris before she was two years old. Not until the age of 20 did Celestina learn from her aunt that her father had stolen the Mona Lisa. After promising to find out what motivated Celestina's father to steal da Vinci's masterpiece, Joe and Justine Medeiros visited the Louvre and archives in Paris with Peruggia’s grandson before traveling with Peruggia's granddaughter to the hotel where the painting was recovered in Florence in 1913.

“The Missing Piece” documents the efforts to research, translate and retrace a century old art crime. Art crime specialists such as Charles Hill, Scotland Yard Art Squad (retired), and Robert Wittman, FBI Art Crime Team (retired), appear with Louvre curators and other writers on the Mona Lisa theft (Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, The Crimes of Paris). Medeiros draws conclusions from primary sources to explain how Peruggia stole the painting and got it out of his museum and to his apartment (apparently he used both a bus and a horse carriage); where he stored the painting for two years; how the French police investigated the crime and how close the great detective  came to identifying both the thief and the painting’s hiding place; and finally, the “missing piece” which leads conclusively to the motive for the theft. The story includes Peruggia’s bouts with lead poisoning, the truth about the psychological evaluation used in his trial, and how Peruggia returned to France after his imprisonment during World War I. The film ends with Joe Medeiros revealing the truth to Celestina, turning the story from art crime to that of family.

"It's not a big, budget Hollywood movie, but it does tell a good story that has a beginning, middle and, fortunately, a happy ending," Joe Medeiros said.

The movie's website and blog contains more information.

Tanya Lervik (ARCA 2011) reviewed this movie last year at a screening in Washington, D.C.

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