by Carole Verona
In 1976, Joe Medeiros’ wife Justine gave him a book about Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance genius who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, among other masterpieces. A single sentence in the book casually mentioned that the painting had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and had been missing for nearly 2½ years.
“I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I never heard about this,’” Joe said. As a recent graduate of Temple University’s School of Radio, Television and Film, he thought he would be the one to write the blockbuster film script about the theft because nobody else had done it.
Thus began Joe’s 35-year-long obsession with Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the painting, and his search for Peruggia’s motive. The result is “Mona Lisa Is Missing,” an informative, entertaining documentary that will be shown at Arcadia University on Wednesday, April 2, in Stiteler Auditorium (Murphy Hall). Refreshments will be served at 7 p.m., with the screening of the film at 7:30. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be followed by a Q&A with Joe and Justine Medeiros.
A couple of things about the story hooked Joe. “Vincenzo Peruggia wasn’t a career criminal or someone who was totally unsavory,” said Joe. “He was a simple, Italian working class guy who stole the painting and basically got away with it. Growing up in the ’60s with Bonnie and Clyde and Butch and Sundance, I always liked the anti-hero. And to me, Vincenzo Peruggia was an anti-hero, a guy who beat the system. And of course, he stole the painting because he believed that it belonged in Italy, not France. And being Italian on my mother’s side, I cheered for the guy.
“I can’t excuse what he did, but I always wanted to understand it from a simple point of view. People said he was mentally deficient, crazy and irrational. But the painting was this guy’s lottery ticket. My screenplay was going to be my ticket. How many people have a novel in their drawer or a business plan they want to launch? We all have a dream of what will put us on easy street.”
Joe began researching the story 35 years ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s main branch. He filled notebooks with information he found in newspaper articles. Over the years, he attempted to write the film script but admits that it felt forced because, although there were a lot of details about the theft itself, there was hardly anything about Vincenzo Peruggia.
“I was forced to try to make up things about him, his life, his psyche and his family. All of this sounded phony. I was never happy with anything I wrote. Consequently, I never finished the film. But I was always interested in the topic. Every so often, I would drag out my files, try something different and look for something new.”
Then in 2008, Joe did a Google search and found out that Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter Celestina was still living in Dumenza, Italy, her father’s birthplace. Justine suggested that Joe do a documentary since the idea of a feature film script never worked out. “That’s when the light bulb went on. I knew it would be do-able as long as we could get hold of his daughter to see what she knew. I wanted to ask questions that would fill in the blanks about her and her father. And that’s how it began.”
Through a former business associate who is an Italian citizen, Joe contacted Celestina, interviewed her by phone and finally visited her and her family in May, 2008. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Celestina talks about how little she knew about her father and how much she wanted to know the truth about why he did what he did.
“The film is about finding the truth — with the help of Celestina’s son and daughter — and bringing it back to her. It’s all played for real,” Joe said. Justine added, “We were lucky because we didn’t know what we were stepping into when we got there. As it turned out, we just walked into central casting. These people were engaging and expressive.”
An interesting moment in the film takes place when Joe, Justine and the crew went into the Louvre to film the Mona Lisa. To gain entry, Joe contacted a former co-worker, who was living in Paris. “You have to give them a list of the art you are going to be photographing or using in your film, and then you pay by the piece of art,” Joe said. It cost approximately $2,000 to shoot what they wanted, including a 10-second shot of the I.M. Pei pyramid outside the Louvre.
“Once we got in, there were just the seven of us and two guards,” Justine said. “We got to experience the Louvre just as Vincenzo Peruggia did on the day he stole the Mona Lisa.” The Louvre was closed that day, and Joe and Justine saw a handful of people dusting the statues and sweeping the floors. “Joe was busy shooting while I roamed around the galleries all by myself. It was overwhelming, to be standing in a place alone where I had been with thousands of people before.“
Now that the documentary is finished, Joe and Justine are, in Joe’s words, “minding the store.” They worked with First Hand Films, an international distributor who secured the film’s appearances on French, German, Italian, Swiss, Finnish and Israeli television and on international flights. The documentary has been shown at 18 film festivals to date and has won numerous awards including Winner, Best Historical Documentary, 2013 San Antonio Film Festival; Winner, Best Documentary, 2013 Amelia Island Film Festival; Winner of the Audience Choice Award, 2013 RXSM Underground Film Expo; and Winner of a Special Award at the 2013 San Joaquin International Film Festival. As the Chestnut Hill Local was going to press, they were in the process of finalizing an agreement with a USA/Canadian distributor for bringing the film to TV, video on demand and digital streaming.
“This film has its heart and soul in Philadelphia. The Greater Philadelphia Film Office is our fiscal sponsor and we received a grant from the Daniel B. and Florence E. Green Family Foundation (Daniel Green is the founder of Firstrust Bank.) We also received funding from Tom Caramancio, former CEO of McCormick Taylor and founder of the Caramancio Foundation,” Joe said.
Speaking more about local connections, Joe mentioned that his parents lived on Beechwood Street, near Germantown and Chelten Avenues. Justine grew up in South Philadelphia, received a B.A. in sociology from St. Joseph’s University and is one class shy of getting a master’s degree from Arcadia University. She taught elementary school and had her own publishing company for many years.
After Joe graduated from Temple, he worked for 15 years at several local advertising agencies. In the early 1980s, he took a correspondence course in comedy writing and ended up selling jokes to Jay Leno and other comedians. While Joe and Justine were living in Glenside from 1978 to 1992, Joe continued to fax jokes to Leno. In 1992, the couple moved to Westlake Village, outside of Los Angeles, when Joe was offered a job as a writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He eventually became head writer and worked there until the show ended in 2009. He continued working for Leno’s new show until 2010, then left to pursue other TV and film projects.
Joe is 63, and Justine is 59. “We’re senior citizens, we get the discount,” Joe concluded.
For more information about “Mona Lisa Is Missing” and to find out how you can purchase the DVD, go to www.monalisamissing.com. Arcadia University is located at 450 S Easton Rd, in Glenside. More information about the screening at 215-572-2900.