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Arts & Culture

'Mona Lisa Is Missing' Looks To Art Crime Of The Century

Celestina Peruggia, 84, her father and the Mona Lisa
courtesy Joe Medeiros
Celestina Peruggia, 84, her father and the Mona Lisa

Filmmaker Will Be In Person At La Paloma Theater

In 1911, someone stole the most famous painting in the world. Director Joe Medeiros finds out why in "Mona Lisa Is Missing," screening Thursday night at La Paloma Theater.

RELATED: Speaking With Joe Medeiros, Director Of “Mona Lisa Is Missing”

Hers was the most famous face of the 20th century. Hundreds of love letters have been written to her. One man shot himself in front of her picture. Her smile has launched a thousand imitations.


And then, one day in 1911, she vanished. Just like that, the Mona Lisa was gone.

Records indicate who took one of the most famous pictures in the Louvre, but they don’t really explain why. The mystery has always fascinated Joe Madeiros, director of “Mona Lisa Is Missing" ( being screened by the San Diego Italian Film Festival). It’s a fun, light-hearted, yet seriously researched documentary on what drove Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant laborer, to steal one of the most famous paintings in the world.

Was it greed, as the trial transcripts suggest? Was it patriotism, as his daughter hopes? Could it have been the result of lead poisoning from his work as a painter, as a modern forensic expert wonders? Could it have been something else? Why would someone steal Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, beloved by king and commoner, which had belonged to France since King Francois I bought it from Da Vinci’s pupil and heir, Salai?

“How could such a nebbishy guy pull off such a crime? “ wonders Richard Lacayo of Time Magazine, one of the experts in the film.

How, indeed? To find out, Medeiros follows Peruggia’s footsteps from the tiny town of Dumenza in Northern Italy to Paris, to Florence and back again to Paris.


In Dumenza, he meets Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter, Celestina, who yearns to know the truth about the father who dropped dead one day right in front of her when she was a toddler. But Celestina knows less than Medeiros does since she was left in the dark about her father’s deeds until she was 20.

And so Medeiros follows Peruggia to Paris, where a treasure trove of police reports, psychiatric evaluations, newspaper clippings and pictures await Medeiros.

As Medeiros pieces together Peruggia’s life in Paris, a fascinating portrait of Paris and the art world at the turn of the century emerges — a world in which Italian immigrants are looked down upon, Picasso looks for models, and visitors look at the Mona Lisa and move on.

Medeiros finds that Peruggia, a former workman at the Louvre, removed the painting from the Louvre far more easily than anyone could have imagined. In fact, he walked out with it, touching off wild speculation as to who could have taken it. The press have a field day. People drop off flowers at the Louvre as if the painting had been a person. Various suspects are picked up, including Picasso. New police techniques are used, including fingerprinting, but the trail quickly grows cold because the Louvre has only fingerprinted one hand of its employees and contractors.

Medeiros quickly picks up the trail of the painting, tracing it through Peruggia’s own writings and the recollections of others. He finds that Peruggia kept the painting in a trunk in his rented room for two years before taking it back to Florence. And there, Peruggia commits a fatal error - he shows it to a dealer and his dreams of glory, reward, and fame end up in a jail cell, a trial and infamy.

Medeiros has created a fascinating documentary that gives a warmth and energy to yet another telling of what could well be considered the art crime of the century. Some of the most innovative parts are the startling yet charming moments of animation that bring a fresh take on static photos and aging news clippings. Equally interesting are the touching moments with Peruggia’s daughter and relatives who are as excited as Medeiros to discover the truth about Peruggia and the painting.

The one major drawback is the over insertion of Medeiros himself. Some of the short scenes seem a little pointless, but Medeiros is at his best when he lets the story play out to his quirky, well-constructed narrative.

And Peruggia — the diminutive Italian who caused one of the biggest uproars in the art world? Stung by his treatment by the French, burdened by poverty and illness caused by exposure to lead paint, Peruggia dreamed of returning an Italian treasure to Italy and accepting a handsome reward from a grateful nation. Instead, he stole a work that legitimately belonged to France, getting himself arrested and banned from Paris.

But, according to the documentary, Peruggia still managed to have the last word. He eventually returned to France, under his full name and proudly showed off the painting he had stolen to his new bride.

“Mona Lisa Is Missing” was screened Wednesday night at the Ultrastar Hazard Center and will be screened Thursday night night at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas at 7 p.m. The director Joe Medeiros and the producer Justine Mestichelli Medeiros will be present to talk about the film.