It is almost impossible nowadays, when thinking about Jesus’ Last Supper, not to picture it in the very same way as Leonardo da Vinci did, five centuries ago (1495-1497). Indeed, the Italian painter captured the essence of this Gospel account in such a prodigious way — notably through a revolutionary sense of perspective — that his personal representation of the Institution of the Eucharist is indelibly ingrained in millions of minds worldwide, beyond fashions and generations.
This deep meaning of that founding event of Christianity, as transmitted by da Vinci, deeply touched the heart of producer and director Armondo Linus Acosta, who decided to pay tribute to him in the most creative fashion: not through a full-fledged film, but through a so-called tableau vivant (French for “living picture”), which re-creates in flesh and blood — and in the smallest detail — the world-famous painting.
To this end, Acosta surrounded himself with three masters of Italian cinema: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, who collectively have earned nine Oscar wins.
In his attempt to immerse the viewers into da Vinci’s mind and, above all, into the mystery of the Last Supper, the director chose to film his nine-minute tableau vivant in slow motion.
The Last Supper: The Living Tableau opens with a setting sun amidst a green hilly countryside, populated with cypress and stone pines. Rossini’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus), played in the background, lends the scene a greater dimension and invites meditation. By a skillful effect of mise en abyme, the spectator is slowly drawn backward and led inside a room through a large wooden window frame, until the iconic table appears, with the Twelve Apostles seated, waiting for Jesus to arrive, with a mixture of impatience and concern. It is then that Jesus enters the scene and, without paying attention to the apostles’ whispers, takes his place at the center of the iconic table. As the sun reappears in the background, he blesses the table, as well as his dozen disciples, before sharing with them the bread and wine. He finally announces that one of the apostles present is going to betray him.
“Just like the crane movement by Vittorio Storaro reaches through the set, in the end, we do the same thing: We go inside the painting, inside the soul of the apostles, and we witness the miracle of Jesus Christ,” Francesca Lo Schiavo, set decorator, said in an unpublished minidocumentary seen by the Register.
It is indeed because of Storaro’s high mastery of lighting that Armondo Linus Acosta was so eager to involve him in the project, especially since Storaro’s lifetime dream was specifically to re-create the Last Supper with his own lighting.
A baptized Catholic, Acosta launched this long-term project after living a mystical experience in 2007 advising him to spread the beauty of the Last Supper via a film, he told the Register. Faithful to the Italian painter’s conviction that “a good painter must paint two things: a person and the essence of his soul,” he and his prestigious collaborators left nothing to chance and pored over every detail to offer the viewers a real spiritual experience.
“The actual filming with the Italian Maestri was a few months, but the works in our studio were extensive and went on well before and of course after, with post-production, the actual filming,” he said.
Indeed, faithfully replicating Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was anything but an easy task. One of the most challenging parts was, according to the film director, the reproduction of the colors and textures of the countless pieces of fabric, from the wall tapestries to the little stiches around the characters’ necks.
“We had to make every small element, every character match the original painting, which sounded like an impossible challenge initially,” Acosta continued, adding that he couldn’t have made this masterwork live without the “extraordinary scientific secrets” that the Italian team shared with him.
Originally, The Last Supper: The Living Tableau was meant to be an introduction to a film on which Acosta was working and intended to be broadcast worldwide at Easter 2020 (including inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), but the project was eventually cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was instead aired on the show Il Diario di Papa Francesco (Pope Francis’ Diary), a program broadcast on Holy Thursday by TV2000 (the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s TV network), as an invitation to prayer and hope in a time of collective trial for many countries.
It is with this same spiritual approach that the nine-minute living picture will be displayed during this week leading up to Easter in three emblematic locations: at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which hosts the original mural of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci; at the Church of Saint Anne, located near the start of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem; and in the Roman Church of Santa Maria di Montesanto, also known as the “Church of the Artists.”
“This scene showing the Institution of the Eucharist, which is the center of Catholicism, is so fascinating; it’s all based on the apostolic principle,” Acosta concluded. “They were 12 at the beginning and with the partaking of the bread and wine, the apostles made Christianity the largest religion in the history of the world — and it will never disappear.”