Peter Capaldi, the current Dr. Who, delivers an avant-garde bit of performance art that should be deconstructed just like da Vinci's notebooks.
Inside The Mind of Leonardo is occasionally interesting. The film offers insights into Leonardo Da Vinci’s thoughts, but in its attempts to be cinematic, its wonderful imagery of countrysides and blue streams tend to overwhelm these occasional insights. Inside The Mind of Leonardo is more a tone poem constructed from the great Master’s notebooks. Director and co-writer Julian Jones creates intrigue when he selects passages from Da Vinci’s notebooks that actually do enlighten, but there are far too few of these intrigues in the movie.
The film is set up as an exploration of Da Vinci’s seemingly singular goal to be remembered by the future. To achieve this goal, it outfits Da Vinci with the voice and face of the current Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi. He reads from a script consisting entirely of English translations of Da Vinci's words. When not showing Capaldi speaking, the camera pans over various drawings and paintings, as well as contemporary images and scenery. Viewers are alerted to time, place, and topic with brief graphic exposition in the form of titles and very short visual statements. A corollary to these cues exists int the form of transition cards in silent movies.
That said, the narrative force is Capaldi’s voice. He delivers a very avant-garde bit of performance art that would not be incongruous with finger-snapping and cigarette smoke, bongo drums, and berets. Perhaps in landing Capaldi as Leonardo, the producers thought they might capitalize on Doctor Who's raging popularity in the US and UK. Perhaps they will, but those viewers' love of Capaldi and the Doctor will only go so far.
Leonardo Da Vinci, of course, comes with his own fan base. I am a member of both the Da Vinci and Doctor Who camps; my gigantic tome of Da Vinci works sits beside my Doctor Who Vault. Yet, as much as I wanted to like the film, I found it more DVD-worthy, something to add to my collection after its television run. This is not a film worthy of theater tickets.
Part of what makes the film less worthy is its depiction of Da Vinci, here a condescending braggart and a bit of bad boy. This isn’t so different from the image of his youth developed in the entertaining, if historically inaccurate, Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz. Unlike the Starz dramatization, this film purports to provide insight into Leonardo's mind. However, the choice of passages from the notebooks is sparse, and I longed for something denser and more intellectually engaging.
This longing kicks in at the beginning of the movie. The opening sequence of house music leading into the extraction of some of da Vinci’s drawings from a vault presages the film's pace. Several minutes beyond that scene, while watching a falconer, we discover that da Vinci’s first memory was that of a bird of prey landing on his crib, whose tail feathers he put between his lips.
The slow pace continues with many images of nature, landscapes, and flowing water. All throughout this, Capaldi speaks or he doesn’t, as when the images are accompanied by music or just sounds -- for instance, a hammer on marble. It is not clear what some shots have to do with what was just said or what is about to be said. The section on human figures features some live humans, like a guy working out, but the story might have benefited from a description of da Vinci's techniques related to what we're seeing on screen.
Inside the Mind of Leonardo may have been a better film had Jones borrowed from old Disney nature movies. Walt knew how to engage an audience quickly, creating strong characters to help connect audiences with film. Even with one of the most engaging characters of all time at the center of this film, Jones creates a 3D film that is flat.
As you contemplate that Inside The Mind of Leonardo is screening in theaters with a 3D option, you can't help but know that Disney would have done more with da Vinci’s drawings than simply deconstruct and layer them into 3D montages. Given the state of digital special effects, flying down da Vinci’s Arno river drawings or diving inside the mold of one of his bronzes would have provided new perspectives and made for a more cohesive combination of image and narrative.
As for the narrative, don't look for a plot. Though the movie takes a linear path through da Vinci’s life, as indicated by the expositional bullet points, it mostly pulls from Da Vinci's notebooks, which he didn’t structure as teaching guides or stories. The movie underlines the disconnected aspect of such observations, as da Vinci’s comments do not come from the same period as the “scenes” in the film, and the film provides no temporal reconciliation. Do, however, listen for Capaldi to recite a da Vinci shopping list.
You might also listen for a series of questions at about the 30 minute mark: What is coughing? What causes yawning? What is a sneeze? What is the cause of breathing? What is lust?
Yes, what is "lust?” We transition from the stillness of a modern apartment exterior to an apparently ancient basement, and we hear through Capaldi's da Vinci the description of an erection. Alhough we don’t learn how the Master painted, we do learn what he thought about erections and how lust leads to procreation. We find he was not ashamed of erections, but that he found sex and foreplay disgusting. Lust, we hear, is the solution to the extinction of man. We are not so much mining for insight as being caught reading a private diary.
And then the film abruptly transitions to opinions and debate. Capaldi’s da Vinci discounts these questions as he does any intellectual activity in which he is not involved. The film makes several of these topical leaps throughout, even as it highlights Capaldi’s performance and suggests his life a Cirque du Soleil show. Capaldi could wander about enormous representations of da Vinci’s work as acrobats pump great wings and rotate gigantic rotors. Here one might imagine clowns clothed in bronze-colored tights flowing into molds that explode into a human sculpture of Francesco Sforza on horseback.
Da Vinci aficionados may, however, learn something from seeing the film once. True students can learn from the interpretation of others. Even if they disagree with the artistic choices, such as how Jones integrates images with da Vinci’s commentary and how Capaldi interprets the rhythm and pace of da Vinci’s voice, they nonetheless do provide an example for how to present the source material. Students of da Vinci, then, might want to see the film as one way to experience the Master.
Alas, The Mind of Leonardo will probably find good ratings once it arrives on the History Channel, and then become a cultural footnote and digital artifact. It will surely be used in art history classes when professors flip the classroom, allowing Capaldi and da Vinci to lecture one evening during the course. The film itself could be deconstructed and placed alongside da Vinci's actual notebooks to make a fine iPad app. Or, of course, it could be that my skepticism is displaced, and that I am but one of the not-so-bright minions whom da Vinci disses throughout the film, just “wood smoke on the wind, foam upon the sea.” Perhaps this review, to paraphrase da Vinci's own words about educated men, is "as the wind I fart from my ass."