In one of the final scenes of Joe Medeiros’s engaging documentary Mona Lisa Is Missing — a look at the story of Vincenzo Peruggia, the thief who stole Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting from the Louvre in 1911 — we are reminded of how easy it is to be ignorant, judgmental, and wrong, even when we are technically right at the same time.
When Medeiros asks to see where Peruggia is buried, the attendant at the cemetery says, “That someone would be interested in the person who stole the Mona Lisa is difficult for me to understand. He was a thief. That’s all.” Is it really that simple? Medeiros does not think so, and as someone who has long been fascinated with the theft and bizarre circumstances under which it was returned, he sets out to find out the truth.
Missing is simultaneously serious and humorous, informational and outlandish, as Medeiros turns over every rock he can find in his quest to learn the real reason why Peruggia stole the painting. He visits Peruggia’s now 84-year-old daughter, Celestina, hoping to learn more about Peruggia, only to discover that Peruggia died when she was a toddler and that she is as curious as anyone about her father’s motives. He talks with international scholars, museum curators, psychiatrists, and any number of colorful people who are related to many who played a part in this story — whether tangentially or otherwise. Though there are red herrings every which way, some facts start to emerge, and as they become clearer, the story becomes more interesting.
Not simply a collection of interviews, Missing is a fascinating cultural exploration of pre-World War I Europe, its values, its biases, and a great many outside factors that helped compel Peruggia to make his daring heist.
A house painter from Italy, Peruggia moved to Paris for work, but was often ridiculed for being an Italian. He decided to get back at the French by stealing something from the Louvre after he got a job there helping cut and clean glass that was, ironically, intended to be used to keep the Louvre’s artifacts safe. But the theft is only part of the intrigue.
The film also explores with some measure of hilarity the circus that followed the painting’s theft in the two years before it was recovered. French police were baffled, everyone from Pablo Picasso to suspicious patrons who seemed to be in love with the Mona Lisa were questioned, fingerprints were taken of everyone who works or worked at the Louvre, and even when a certain logical deduction paves the way for police to discover that Peruggia was the guilty party, their assumptions about the nature of the case and the kind of thief they were after literally prevent them from seeing that Peruggia was the culprit.
Medeiros guides the story along with a steady hand and subtle narration when required, never inserting himself into the narrative more than is necessary after the enthusiastic intro he gives. His sense of restraint is admirable. Also of note are the somewhat cartoonish bits which are featured throughout the story. Taking graphics and still shots of Peruggia, the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, and other things, they are then animated as certain events unfold or details emerge. These bits add much to the flow of the film and keep Missing from merely being an exercise in information-collecting and information-dumping on the viewer.
Missing shows us that there is more going on here than simply the story of a thief taking a now-beloved painting. It is noted in the film, for example, that the Mona Lisa of 1911 was not the Mona Lisa of today; it was not overly noteworthy when it was stolen and was simply chosen because it was the smallest of the paintings that Peruggia had access to, so it was not as though Peruggia planned to walk out with one of the world’s most iconic pieces. In fact, a psychiatric analysis of his mental state from a previous crime of his suggests that he was more akin to Forrest Gump than a criminal mastermind, so who knows what sort of motive he had? Did Peruggia want to make money from this endeavor? Bring honor to Italy by returning what he thought was stolen artwork to its native land, and, in doing so, bring honor to himself and his family?
Medeiros’s search for the truth reveals that Peruggia was far more than just a thief, and the story that surrounds this mysterious man is as intriguing as it is unbelievable.
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