'Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil': A fast-paced documentary delight

"Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil" follows a team - including art historian Matthijs Ilsink (rear left) and conservator Luuk Hoogstede - mounting a show for the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death.

Pieter van Huystee's documentary Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, is not really about the 15th-century Dutch painter of bizarre demonic scenes, as most Bosch fans will expect it to be.

For all Bosch's fame - and he certainly ranks among the world's 10 most widely known artists - surprisingly little is known of his life, and van Huystee's film sheds little new light on what is already recorded.

What the film is, instead - and it quickly makes its intentions clear - is a remarkably candid, insider, rapid-paced look at the making of an art exhibition. We watch as a team of dedicated Dutch art historians and archivists goes through every hoop imaginable to assemble a show of works by Bosch commemorating the 500th anniversary of his death.

The show's venue is to be the Noordbrabants Museum in 's-Hertogenbosch, a city in the southern Netherlands that the Dutch call Den Bosch, in which Bosch spent his entire life. (The exhibition did take place at that museum earlier this year.)

Documentaries rarely cross over to the thriller category, but this one does. It's elegantly filmed, cutting from scene to scene with a precision that heightens the sense of anticipation of successes and possible failures in the team's quest.

Following his Dutch subjects from museum to museum as they meet with curators and museum directors, examine paintings using infrared photography and other of-the-moment analysis, and ask for loans, van Huystee is unusually privy to conversations one expects to be held behind closed doors. In every case, he plays up their inherent drama.

When Gabriele Finaldi, then-director of the Prado Museum in Madrid, which has the largest holdings of Bosch paintings in the world, tells the Dutch group he cannot commit to a loan of The Garden of Earthly Delights, van Huystee's camera lingers on everyone's changing facial expressions, catching every nuance of sternness, annoyance, and deflation.

Likewise, when Matteo Ceriana, the then-director of Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia, insists that his museum's paintings will have to be restored before they can be lent, he comes off like a character from The Godfather.

Matthijs Ilsink, the art historian and Bosch expert who leads the Dutch team, is so seemingly at ease in front of the camera, you forget he's not an actor. His hasty side trip to Antwerp to meet with a collector who has been offered a supposed Bosch drawing is straight out of James Bond.

The process of authenticating Bosch paintings - to date, some 25 panels and triptychs have been identified as being by his hand - turns out to be one of the most fascinating aspects of this documentary.

A snowy-haired Dutchman is shown meticulously counting the rings on the back of a Bosch panel, and explaining that the width of a particular ring in the wood would reflect that year's dry or wet weather, and that although Bosch did not date most of his works, he can offer art historians approximate dates.

The Dutch team's close examination of The Hay Wain, a triptych owned by the Prado, reveals that Bosch's assistant, thought to have been left-handed, probably helped the right-handed master on at least one panel.

Unfortunately, van Huystee's fast pace allows too little opportunity to study Bosch's paintings.

Close-up images of details illuminated by infrared photography - including owls, long-whiskered catlike creatures, and other staples of Bosch's imagination - are passed over too quickly. Discussions about the artist's inspirations and motivations are given more time, but not enough.


Hieronymus Bosch:

Touched by the Devil

***½ (Out of four stars)

• Directed by Pieter van Huystee. With Matthijs Ilsink, Gabriele Finaldi, Matteo Ceriana. Distributed by Kino Lorber.

• Running time: 1 hour, 26 mins.

• Parent's guide: Not rated. (Images in paintings show nude figures, a man being flayed, various grotesqueries.)

• Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.