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Arts & Culture

A Comedy Writer Follows The Trail Of One Of The Greatest Art Thefts In History

Joe Medeiros, director of the documentary, "Mona Lisa Is Missing," will in person at the screenings
courtesy Joe Medeiros
Joe Medeiros, director of the documentary, "Mona Lisa Is Missing," will in person at the screenings

Speaking With Joe Medeiros, Director Of "Mona Lisa Is Missing"

You could say Joe Medeiros has a long attention span. You could even call him, well, obsessed.

“But in a good way,” Medeiros said.

Medeiros is screening the fruit of his obsession, the fun and informative documentary, “Mona Lisa Is Missing,” Thursday night at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas as part of the San Diego Italian Film Festival’s monthly screening series.

RELATED: Review Of ‘Mona Lisa Is Missing’

“It’s perfect timing,” Medeiros said of the screening. “It’s 101 years to the day that Vincenzo Peruggia brought the Mona Lisa to Florence.”

Just how and why Vincenzo Peruggia came by the celebrated painting in the first place has occupied Medeiros for more than 30 years. At first a fascinating tale, the story of the theft, the thief, and the thrill of the scandal soon turned into an obsession for Medeiros. Originally, he thought it would make a great feature film script.

“But maybe I’m not much of a fiction writer,” Medeiros joked.

Medeiros, who has worked as a writer/producer for Jay Leno, let the idea percolate for awhile until, “one day I was looking up Peruggia to see if there was anything new and I discovered Celestina (Peruggia’s daughter)."

Medeiros said as soon as he started thinking of the project as a documentary and not a fiction piece, things fell quickly into place.

“Serendipity?” he said.

Peruggia’s daughter, by then 84, was willing to talk about her father. Other interesting bits fell into place as Medeiros worked on the documentary. For example, access to the apartment where Peruggia lived in Paris, and permission to shoot in the Louvre when it was closed.

For Medeiros, as well as the family, pursuing the documentary was a type of closure. A long standing mystery about why would an Italian immigrant laborer, Vincenzo Perrugia, steal one of the most important paintings in the world was finally being investigated and told.

The documentary, “Mona Lisa Is Missing,” has what Medeiros calls a through line- a narrative that keeps the story on track. Part of the film involves Medeiros’ search for material and his interactions with Celestina Perrugia and her family.

“It’s basically a quest to find the truth,” Medeiros said, a way of working with his interest in Perrugia, the crime and its aftermath.

As with many historical documentaries, Medeiros had to solve the problem of making the material interesting and creating material where there was none. Ken Burns did this for his series on the Civil War by creating what is now known as the Ken Burns effect - the zooming in, out and around pictures of the era. Medeiros takes a more eclectic tack, often inserting pieces of pictures into another picture and animating people and objects. The effect is both funny and effective. Medeiros describes his technique as “born of desperation” and as a way of dealing with little to no footage for parts of the story.

In addition, Medeiros wanted to keep the tone light and entertaining. After all, he said, “I’ve written comedy for 15 years!”

Medeiros said the Perrugia family is pleased with the final product even though it might not show Vincenzo Perruggia in the most romantic of lights. The project was both fun and the answer to a long standing mystery, why did Peruggia make off with such a famous painting? For Medeiros, Peruggia’s crime needs to be seen against the backdrop of the times.

According to Medeiros, Peruggia was an immigrant in France, and the painting was his “golden ticket to honor and financial reward.” Treated as an inferior immigrant by the French, Peruggia “believed he was better than what was happening to him.”

As the documentary points out, Peruggia was arrested in Italy when he offered the painting to a dealer in Florence, and served time in prison. The painting was returned to France where it had been legitimately acquired from Da Vinci himself.

Peruggia, Medeiros explained, actually returned to France after World War I and couldn’t resist showing his new bride the painting whose theft shocked the art world.

As for Medeiros, finding the truth turned out to be much more fun than creating the fiction.

Medeiros and the producer, his wife, Justine Mestichelli Medeiros, will be on hand for questions after the screening tonight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.