Inside the Mind of Leonardo is a feature-length documentary, shot in crisp high-definition 3D, that delves into Da Vinci’s private journals and places his words into the mouth of celebrated actor Peter Capaldi. It originally aired on television in the UK and Canada in 2013; now, as 2014 comes to a close, the film is being released in theaters across the globe. One can’t help but wonder if this is an effort to capitalize on the new-found popularity Capaldi has deservedly accrued since he was cast as the titular Time Lord on Doctor Who (before, in the US, he was more of a cult taste for those who admired the way he elevated the most vulgar curse words to high art on The Thick of It). Yet there are far worse ways to use his star power than to tell the story of the self-described “disciple of experience” whose name could and should be listed in the dictionary as the definition of Renaissance man.
It’s hard to describe Da Vinci and do him justice; according to that paragon of research Wikipedia, he was (takes a deep breath) “an Italian polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.” In the 67 years that he was alive, he accomplished more, and in more diverse fields, than most people could ever even imagine--basically making even the most overachieving Type-A personality feel like a slacker. Upon his death in 1519, he left behind iconic paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as thousands of pages of journals detailing his philosophies on art, learning and life. In order to take the viewer inside Da Vinci’s mind, director Julian Jones places Capaldi in what looks like a bleak, bare artist’s garret (very little actual scenery to chew here) in a suitably bohemian vest and red scarf and lets him loose on those aforementioned pages. Capaldi brings an appropriate amount of intellectual intensity to such musings as “Knowledge begins with love” and “A good artist must show two things--the man himself and the inside of the man’s mind.” Inside the Mind of Leonardo would veer dangerously close to the precipice of pretentiousness without Capaldi’s gravitas; his performance puts a face on a man whose high level of accomplishments can often make him feel alien, keeping the film grounded and the audience interested in what he has to say.
Capaldi’s scenes are interwoven with glimpses at Da Vinci’s drawings, diagrams and artwork, liberal use of animation, and snippets of 21st-century life being lived in the places where Da Vinci walked and breathed so many centuries earlier. The use of modern movie-making technology and contemporary visuals makes for an interesting juxtaposition when paired with Da Vinci’s words and ideas, many of which were far ahead of his time. The 3D does feel rather indulgent and unnecessary at times, especially when applied to Da Vinci's already marvelous 2D works, though one cannot deny the joy that comes with seeing Capaldi’s infamous eyebrows wiggling away in three dimensions or in taking in the beautiful location shots of the Tuscan countryside. Either way, one imagines that Da Vinci himself would approve of the choice--it is forward-thinking filmmaking being used to bring one of history’s most forward-thinking men back to life onscreen.
Inside the Mind of Leonardo is an admittedly niche production that as a whole feels a bit more like a performance art experiment than any sort of narrative. However, for managing to be far different than anything else gracing cinemas this holiday season, and for Capaldi’s performance, it is worthy of attention.
"Inside the Mind of Leonardo" opens December 5, 2014 and is not rated. Documentary. Written by Julian Jones, Nick Dear. Starring Peter Capaldi.