Documentary follows bizarre journey of ‘lost’ Leonardo da Vinci painting

The painting of dubious origin attracted the attention of a wily Swiss businessman, a Russian oligarch, the CIA, and the FBI before ending up in the possession of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Cryptozoo. Credit: Magnolia Pictures

My relationship with so-called “adult animation” got off to a bumpy start in early 1974, when I persuaded my mother to take me to see René Laloux’s La planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet). The film’s (retrospectively inexplicable) PG rating and sci-fi setting suggested it would just as entertaining and exciting as Beyond Atlantis, a cheesy Filipino adventure flick I’d dragged her to only a few months prior.

How wrong I was: The furthest thing imaginable from a popcorn movie, Fantastic Planet provided a darkly psychedelic vision of life on a world inhabited by strange, non-human creatures. The film disturbed and confused 11-year old me, and few words were exchanged between mother and son on the way home.

Perhaps my troubling encounter with Fantastic Planet forever spoiled my taste for “mature” cartoons, because Fritz the Cat didn’t do anything for me either (don’t worry, I waited until I’d left home before seeing that one), and despite repeated attempts I never developed a taste for anime. When it comes to cartoons, it turns out, I’m just an old-fashioned Porky and Daffy guy.

Consequently, I approached Cryptozoo (opening on Friday, Aug. 20, at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) with some trepidation. I’d enjoyed director Dash Shaw’s My Entire School Sinking Into the Sea — his amusing 2017 take on high school social cliques adapting to natural disaster — but Cryptozoo is a different kettle of fish. Dispensing entirely with humor, its tale of a zoo (or is it a sanctuary?) for mythological creatures is much closer in tone to Fantastic Planet than to Daffy and Bugs’ witty Twitter-style repartee in Rabbit Seasoning (1952).


The result is a poker-faced phantasmagoria that asks some interesting questions (is it ethical for cryptids to be employed at the same facility that’s holding some of their compatriots?) but ultimately left me underwhelmed. If you’re a Fantastic Planet fan, there’s a good chance you’ll love Cryptozoo — me, I think I’ll stick with Looney Tunes.

The Lost Leonardo. Credit: Sony Classics

I have no such reservations about The Lost Leonardo, also opening this Friday at the Shattuck. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year, the film focuses on a fascinating — and still (perhaps?) unresolved — mystery, and immediately grabbed my attention with its noirish introduction to the secret world of “sleeper hunters.”

Alexander Parish’s job is to “hunt” for artworks offered for sale by auction houses that might not know what they have on their hands. In 2005, he stumbled across a painting called “Salvator Mundi” — attributed to either a student or acolyte of Leonardo da Vinci — and purchased it for a little over a $1,000.

Taking note of the portrait’s high degree of “overpaint,” Parish and art dealer Robert Simon took it to restorer Dianne Modestini for an appraisal. Modestini’s 98-year old husband pronounced it the work of a genius, and after Dianne carefully removed the overpaint she declared it a lost da Vinci original.

Directed by Andres Koefoed, The Lost Leonardo pursues the painting on its bizarre post-Modestini journey. Reputedly once owned by Kings Charles I and II of England, “Salvator Mundi” subsequently attracted the attention of a wily Swiss businessman, a Russian oligarch, the CIA, and the FBI before ending up in the possession of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Whether or not the painting is truly an original remains very much an open question, but the $450,000,000 MBS paid for it in 2017 suggests that bragging rights trump provenance in the world of the ultra-rich.