April, 2006, Documentary

A movie about art theft surely won't make the top of anyone's must-see list, but if the subject interests you, this documentary by first-time filmmaker/cinematographer Rebecca Dreyfus has enough going for it to warrant an hour and a half of your time, principally because it wisely spends most of its 90 minute length examining a Grande Dame of a victim and the dandiest real-life detective to come along in years.

In the late 19th century, a Bostonian socialite with the imposing name of Isabella Stewart Gardner began to acquire a personal art collection utilizing a European-based intermediary named Bernard Berenson. From dealers and auction houses across the Continent, she assembled a group of masterpieces including works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Having designed and built a house-cum-museum to display her treasures, Gardner died in the mid-1920s, leaving behind a will which stipulated that the collection was to be opened to the public and its pieces to be displayed in exactly the same locations as she had left them. Her wishes were honored to the letter and the Gardner became one of those local curiosities that grace a number of American cities, providing fodder for local tourist brochures. Until St. Patrick's day of 1990 that is, when two thieves, posing as policeman, entered the museum, tied up the guards and made off with more than a dozen pieces, including Vermeer's masterpiece The Concert.

Enter Ms. Dreyfus and a shamus named Harold Smith, who’s made a career of retrieving stolen works of art. Sporting an eye patch, false nose and ever-present Homburg, (the results of wide-spread skin cancer caused by quack treatments he received as a young graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine) Smith and Dreyfus determine to make a film out of his efforts to locate the missing Vermeer, the most valuable of the purloined works. 

As the camera dutifully follows him from cab to plane to far off hotel room in search of ex-cons who might know something that could be described as a lead, Dreyfus inter-cuts Smith's efforts with a Ken Burns-like use of vintage photographs and voice-overs, (Blythe Danner for Gardner, Campbell Scott for Berenson) to recreate the decades over which the collection was assembled. To this story she appends interviews with art experts and museum staff members who testify to the collection's enduring importance and Gardner's reputation as a feminist before her time. Smith's research turns up possible connections to Boston's Irish mob, the I.R.A. and a British fence with the nickname "Turbocharger" whose motor-mouth style and eager-to-please manner on camera are put to wonderfully amusing use.

Dreyfus switches from past to present and back again with considerable sophistication, considerably aided by the camerawork of Albert Maysles, one of the deans 

of American documentary filmmaking. There are a number of visual transitions which momentarily bring Gardner's past seamlessly into Smith's present, providing the audience with the same momentary feeling of disorientation you get as a passenger in an airplane that’s hit an air-pocket. But Smith's patient, unselfconscious style and his oblivious connections to dubious characters doesn't resolve anything and the film ends with a series of written footnotes about the supposed motivations behind and present location of the targets of this robbery that make what precedes it a bit of a cinematic con job. Slickly presented though it may be, by the time a shop-worn version of the song "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music accompanies the credits, it's obvious there's a bit less here than meets the eye.   

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