I am drawn to a certain type of historical figure, I admit it. The well-educated, suave ones are all very well and good (who doesn’t like Thomas Jefferson? Even John Adams made up with him in the end), but I really like a self-educated polymath with a good sense of humor. Give me Ben Franklin and his fart jokes any day. When I went to Brigade Marketing’s advance screening of Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D, I was delighted to learn that Leonardo da Vinci was exactly my historical type, even down to a fart reference in the first five minutes of the film. It’s not your typical documentary.
The film was released in the UK and Canada in 2013 but will be hitting the big screen stateside in December. And yes, you want to see this on the big screen and in 3D. Hell, I would go see this in an IMAX if I could; the visuals are just that stunning. Significant amounts of screen time are given to gorgeous sweeping vistas of Italy, and the 3D slow-motion of the flight of birds of prey is mind-blowing. Add to this animated images from the pages of da Vinci’s own journals, and you have a captivating film that feels like it could be at home in an art house. It is a fitting tribute to one of the most renowned artists of all time.
But the artistic side of Leonardo da Vinci is only half his story. He was also a scientist and a naturalist. Getting “inside” the mind of such a man is a tall order, and something da Vinci himself attempted to do in his artwork–you’ll understand this once you see the section of the film where he describes painting. How do you know what someone else is thinking? Inside the Mind of Leonardo relies on some 6,000 pages of da Vinci’s journals to suss out his thoughts on the world around him. Insights from these journals—delivered brilliantly by Peter Capaldi—reveal a man who was constantly reaching for fame and immortality even though he had been born the bastard son of a notary in Tuscany. Lacking the rank and formal education that were necessary for success in the fifteenth century, da Vinci capitalized on his intense desire to get ahead, his native intelligence, and his artistic talent to make his way in the world. Our knowledge of him nearly five hundred years after his death is proof of his remarkable triumph over his humble beginnings.
I was absolutely riveted the entire 85 minutes of the film. The beautiful imagery interspersed with simple monologues was magical, creating a truly complete world. Unlike so many documentaries that rely on a large cast dressing up in period clothing, Inside the Mind of Leonardo has a cast of one. Peter Capaldi, dressed in modern clothes, delivers entries from da Vinci’s journals as monologues in dilapidated rooms that illustrate the isolation of a genius. I’ve said it before in my review of the Doctor Who episode “Into the Dalek,” but it bears repeating: Capaldi performing straight to camera is magnetic. You really feel as if he is speaking directly to you, and he fully conveys the intensity of a man whose mind is always working, trying to figure out the world around him. He pulls off the puckishness of youth, the tiredness of old age, and everything in between. It’s a tour de force performance.
Da Vinci covered a wide range of subjects in his journals. He observed nature, questioned bodily functions, and categorized facial features as a means of understanding humanity. Interspersed with all of this are bits of the mundane like shopping lists, which beautifully humanize da Vinci’s genius. Prior to seeing the film, I knew that da Vinci had been interested in discovering a means for man to fly, but I did not know that he had basically invented modern warfare (tanks and an underwater breathing apparatus appear in his journal pages) or that he had been concerned with the color of his hair (a recipe for hair dye is also featured). His words, combined with the stunning visuals, provide a near complete picture of this brilliant man. We really do manage to get inside da Vinci’s mind, a remarkable feat of biography and film. I give Inside the Mind of Leonardo a solid 5 out of 5 Lightning Bolts. It’s a wonderful and unique biography, and you absolutely need to see it.
Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D opens Friday, December 19.