Off the Wall
The AFS Texas Documentary Tour: Rebecca Dreyfus' 'Stolen'
Just past midnight on St. Patrick's Day, 1990, thieves disguised as Boston cops gained entrance to and successfully made off with $300 million's worth of paintings from the city's legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, purportedly the only museum in the world designed, financed, and curated by a woman (the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is in an old palazzo). Among the 13 paintings stolen from the museum was Vermeer's The Concert, one of only 35 of the 17th-century master's surviving works. (Also taken were three Rembrandts, including The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and works by Manet and Degas.) Sixteen years later, despite a multimillion-dollar reward, the art has never been recovered, a fact starkly underscored by the empty frames still hanging on the museum walls, an unintended consequence of Ms. Gardner's will stipulating that no work of art be removed or replaced.
In Stolen, filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus (Bye-Bye, Babushka), who had herself been captivated by the Vermeer when she'd visited the Gardner years earlier, set for herself a fairly straightforward mission: make a film about the heist of this, the most valuable unrecovered stolen work of art, part of the most expensive and (unsolved) modern American art heist. Albert Maysles, Dreyfus' mentor, agreed to sign on as director of photography. Dreyfus' concept took an unexpected turn for the intriguing when a cold call to international art theft expert, Harold J. Smith, resulted in his impromptu decision to jump in and try to solve the mystery with Dreyfus' camera turned on. The larks don't get any better than this for a filmmaker. A doc that would otherwise have been a dry recount of a decade-old unsolved crime took on at least some of the immediacy of a CSI episode.
The 75-year-old Smith, whose face (reconstructed with a prosthetic nose after years battling skin cancer), black eye patch, and bowler hat render him visually riveting, is also a most knowledgeable and engaging inquisitor. He sets up a tip hotline, which gets widespread attention in the press, and pretty soon the bizarre ones start coming in. We follow Smith as he interviews members of the seedy Boston underground, listening to Boston Irish mobsters like "Whitey" Bulger and Myles Connor (who once stole a Rembrandt from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and admits to once having entertained his own plans for robbing the poorly secured Gardner) talk about the nuts and bolts of art theft. At one point, the involvement of the Irish Republican Army, known for its propensity for stealing Vermeers, is seriously considered. Lots of wild-goose chases and fascinating theories, but nothing conclusive.
Interwoven with Smith's investigation and the onscreen face time of these latter-day art-heist lowlifes are two other strands which, while interesting, can sometimes feel like part of another film. Along with footage from archival turn-of-the-century newsreels, Dreyfus has actors Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott read from correspondence between Isabella Stewart Gardner and the legendary art dealer Bernard Berenson, whom Gardner deputized to purchase the art for her collection. Here we're made privy to the minutiae of Berenson's European missions on Gardner's behalf, including how to smuggle a work of art out from its country of origin by placing it on the bottom of one's suitcase. The other strand consists of interviews with passionate Vermeer experts, art historians, and novelist Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring), who discuss Vermeer and his legacy, ostensibly to help us realize what truly was lost.
Rebecca Dreyfus in attendance
Wednesday, July 12, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown