The Story of the Film: A 35-Year-Long Obsession
In 1976, Joe Medeiros, an avid trivia buff, was shocked to uncover a piece of history he knew absolutely nothing about: the 1911 theft of the MONA LISA. Acting alone, an Italian immigrant house painter named VINCENZO PERUGGIA took the painting from The Louvre and kept her in his one-room apartment in Paris for over two years. Peruggia was never caught until he returned the Mona Lisa to Florence through an Italian art dealer, claiming that he stole the painting to return it to its rightful owners – the Italian people.
With archaeologist-like zeal, Medeiros went digging for any reports on the theft. He thought the theft would make a great narrative film but became stymied by the lack of information on Peruggia. Little was known about him as a man, and much that had been written was merely speculation.
Medeiros was unwilling to give up on finding Peruggia’s true-life story and his reason for the theft. His constant frustration with trying to write a film script about Peruggia eventually led him to put the story aside and to take, of all things, a correspondence course in joke-writing. While he found writing a film script to be difficult, he found joke writing easy. He soon finished the course and began writing jokes for comedians as a source of income - and fun - outside of his regular day job as an advertising copywriter.
In 1988, he managed to get his jokes in front of Jay Leno who, at the time, was guest hosting for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Leno liked Medeiros' jokes and had NBC hire him as a staff writer. In 1992, when Leno took over The Tonight Show, Medeiros and his family moved to Los Angeles where he remained with Jay until 2010 -- 16 of those years as The Tonight Show's head writer.
In spite of his comedy success, Medeiros never forgot his dream of making a film about Vincenzo Peruggia and his unthinkable theft.
In 2008, a Google search for any new information about Peruggia yielded the name CELESTINA PERUGGIA, Vincenzo Peruggia’s then 84-year-old daughter and only child, living in Dumenza, Italy. It was then that Medeiros got the idea of making a documentary about Peruggia instead of trying to write a narrative film.
Fast-forward to May 2008 when Medeiros and a small team travel of Italy to interview Celestina Peruggia. They are warmly greeted by the Peruggia family but are suddenly presented with a new challenge. While Celestina believes her father stole the Mona Lisa for patriotic reasons, she knows little else. Vincenzo Peruggia died when she was only a toddler. The family's memory of him had been shrouded in shame because of the theft, and they rarely mentioned him. She tells Joe that before she dies, she wants to know the truth about his motives.
So with the help of researchers, art experts and Celestina Peruggia’s children Silvio and
Graziella, Medeiros and his team embarked on an epic journey leading them to the Louvre, to Peruggia’s hiding place in Paris, to Florence where he returned the painting, to thousands of documents in the French and Italian archives. And ultimately... to the truth.
Joe Medeiros has been shooting and editing his own short films since the early 1970s when 8mm cameras and splicing tape were in use. A Hollywood television comedy writer by trade, but a filmmaker by vocation, Joe spent 17 years as head writer for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." He has also directed and edited the award-winning short documentaries "Sailing the Star of India," "Doors of Florence," and "Friends of Independence." "Mona Lisa is Missing" is his first feature-length documentary.
Medeiros and his wife, producer Justine Mestichelli Medeiros, run Midair Rose Productions and are currently working on documentaries about the Salton Sea in California and the Catholic procession traditions of St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church in Los Angeles.
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