Film Review: Julian Jones and Peter Capaldi Try a Bold, New Approach with ‘Inside the Mind of Leonardo’

Peter Capaldi as Leonardo da Vinci in

Peter Capaldi as Leonardo da Vinci in “Inside the Mind of Leonardo.” (Submarine Deluxe/History Film/IWC Media)

It’s very exciting to post my review on “Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D,” which opened in US theaters on December 19th. It finally arrived in our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, earlier today (in 2D). Julian Jones’ documentary is a bold endeavor to capture the mind of the artist Leonardo da Vinci, who left us with quite a body of work that includes the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. There seems to be a bit of an aura about the man, tied largely to the release of books from authors like Dan Brown. Da Vinci thus has seemed to strike many people in today’s world as a genius, a Renaissance man that towers above others in his time and the great artists of today.

However, if one reads the journals and scholarly works by professors like Martin Kemp, as I did at college, one finds that though a genius, it’s a disservice to Leonardo da Vinci to regard him merely in that way. His career was riddled with failures: intellectual struggles, doubts, and unfinished commissions. It’s an issue Peter Capaldi touches on briefly in one of his behind-the-scenes series of interviews from last month. Yes, the question below came from me, @PCuad24.

Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) plays the role of Leonardo in this documentary, using words from the artist’s own journals. Intermingled with his monologues on art, perspective, aiming for greatness, and scientific questions are picturesque views of the Tuscan landscape, Florence, and Milan. Often, documentaries or historically-based films aim to recreate the bygone time period (with tights and old accents), which may be informative on only the level of facts, overly dry, or just plain amusing (not in the good way).

Instead, Jones and Capaldi are using a more dynamic and confrontational style, which admittedly may not be for everyone. If you’ve read the Los Angeles Times, you may have seen a rather scathing review by Martin Tsai. It’s somewhat bewildering that he ventures so far as to compare the project to “Mr. Turner,” a drama rather than a documentary. There are other reviews like this one in the news, which fail to grasp the point that Capaldi/Leonardo expresses in the very beginning when he calls himself a “disciple of experience.”

What we’re given is an opportunity to see these parts of Italy in the way Leonardo might have viewed them, to try to recreate that experience. At the same time, it’s done in our modern visual vocabulary to make the artist more “accessible” to the viewer, an intention that Capaldi mentions in a recent interview with Bob Andelman (aka Mr. Media). And what an interesting journey it is into Leonardo’s mind, which starts at the vaults that house his journals as you trace his thoughts concerning birds, human emotions, and moving water and how that relates to possible flying machines and rendering figures. We see modern examples with real birds, people, and landscapes in the frame. Yet in the midst of these thoughts, the mundane and everyday creeps in through a shopping list, a recipe for hair dye, or phrases like, “I must rest.”

Also, there is Leonardo’s pursuit of fame and recognition as he seeks “to leave a memory of [himself] in the minds of others,” something he sought through his paintings and an attempt at an equestrian statue. During my Italian Renaissance Art courses, I was pretty blown away by the level of detail in his sketches, whether it was faces, landscapes, or anatomical studies. However, I would say that my favorite sketches were and still are the war machines, like the intricate tanks and cannon balls. By the end of the documentary, I think viewers have a lot to take away that they may not have known before about Leonardo da Vinci as they learn about perspective, proportions, and even how one might go about casting a horse in bronze. Perhaps after the show, your eyes might even render those pyramidal shapes as you study the faces you encounter as you go about your day.

“Inside the Mind of Leonardo” also takes a bold approach in how it plays with your senses, which are the components of experience as Renaissance thinkers liked to emphasize. Firstly, there’s a sort of spy flavor in the soundtrack of aKido as we’re unlocking these “secrets.” The other interesting aspect is the dramatic use of color and shadow: red splashes as the camera wipes in and out with the anatomical sequences in combination with dark shadowy rooms. Viewers familiar with Leonardo’s work may recognize the brown smoky effects as the lens zooms in through drawings or transitions to explanatory captions. Whether intentional or not by Jones, it’s the perfect evocation of the artist’s use of sfumato, when (usually oil) paint is laid in such a way to make figure outlines subtle. Finally, the drawings of Leonardo are animated, with lines crossing over the screen (or “blank journal paper”) rapidly to create people, hills, animals, and cities.

These special effects are great, but success of this documentary also hinges on the performance of Peter Capaldi. He sports a collared shirt with buttons undone, suspenders, and trousers and “resides” in a sparse building with peeling walls, wood furniture, and the occasional curtains (quintessentially an art house). At the forefront of these scenes are Capaldi’s monologues, delivered in a conversational manner with a vivacity that captures the curiosity, energy, vanity, and gloom in the artist’s thoughts. My favorite part is probably the war machines sequence, when Capaldi appears frustrated at having to restart Leonardo’s address of introduction to the “illustrious lord” or Ludovico Sforza; those few short moments do a lot to enliven the segment. The air of confidence and artistry in his delivery wonderfully evokes the sort of tone one might expect at court, which one can find readily in conversations from Baldassare Castiglione’s “The Book of the Courtier.” The effortlessness and ease almost bespeaks a bit of sprezzatura but perhaps that’s a stretch.

After watching “Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D” (or in 2D), it’s not difficult to see why the documentary won Best Historical Documentary last year at the 3D Creative Arts Awards and garnered three separate nominations as Best Arts Documentary. Capaldi’s acting and the artistic choices of the production team do much to recreate Leonardo da Vinci in a fashion that is arresting and insightful from start to finish. The most important thing is to keep an open mind.

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  1. A Fantastic Summer at the Art Museum: “Guarding Leonardo da Vinci” | TV Spyglass

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