Every now and then, two separate filmmakers get a similar idea into production and we windup with a summer blockbuster season with two dueling “volcanoes destroy the West Coast”or “terrorists attack the White House” movies at the local cineplex. But outside of 2019’s two competing films about the ill-fated Fyre Festival music fest – Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Biggest Party That Never Happened – it doesn’t seem to have happened within recent memory for documentaries.
That is until now, with two dueling documentaries about the story and controversies swirling around the painting Salvator Mundi, a painting discovered in 2005 and thought by many to be a previously-thought lost work by the master Leonardo Da Vinci. This past June saw the premier of The Lost Leonardo at the Tribeca Film Festival (see our review here) with Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? hitting streaming this Friday (September 17) on On Demand outlets including Apple+/iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.
Like the aforementioned Fyre Festival documentaries, The Lost Leonardo and Savior For Sale both tackle the same story but differ somewhat in terms of emphasis and in the participation of those involved. And while watching both can help give one perhaps a more comprehensive idea of the whole story of the painting, Savior For Sale is the lesser of the two films.
Both films sketch out the story of the 2005 discovery of the painting in a New Orleans auction house catalog to its sale at Christie’s a dozen years later for the shocking price of $400 million. Over the course of those twelve years, the Salvator Mundi was the object of scrutiny by scholars, used to draw thousands to the museums it was displayed in and even became part of a Russian oligarch’s scheme to hide some of his wealth around the world.
One of the unique things that Savior For Sale brings to the conversation about Salvator Mundi painting is the inclusion of the son of the Louisiana art collector, who had put it up for auction following his father’s death. It may seem like a slight inclusion but it helps to color in the story of the painting for a portion of the time it was considered lost.
Savior For Sale‘s biggest omission, though, is its lack of time spent on the painting’s restoration and authentication via art historian Diane Dwyer Modestini. Modestini’s work in cleaning the painting and uncovering the key clue – a spot where the painter corrected an initial impulse called a pentimento – were essential to build the case that the painting could be by Da Vinci. Equally important is the controversy over Modestini’s restoration of the painting, which some would argue went too far and moved it away from being able to considered strictly a solo work of Da Vinci.
These are two very important facets of the story of the Salvator Mundi. The controversy that surrounded the painting during its brief public life and its final auction price were fueled by it. To gloss over much of this with little more than a shot of Modestini at work and one sentence from her in an interview setting does the story and the film a disservice.