Tim’s Vermeer

The documentary category is rich with contenders this awards season, so it’s understandable if a film about a low-priority and admittedly insoluble 17th-century mystery seems less urgent than some other rightly lauded fare. But Tim’s Vermeer, in which a non-painter painstakingly replicates a masterpiece just to test a theory about how the original was made, is one documentary not to miss. Being an inventor by trade, Tim Jenison barely knows how to hold a paintbrush, but he has a flair for solving problems. He’s the right man for the job of testing David Hockney’s hypothesis that the most famously photorealistic paintings made before the invention of photography were done using camera obscuras and portable mirrors. We watch as Jenison reconstructs every detail of the room in which Vermeer painted “The Music Lesson,” then reproduces the painting itself. It takes hundreds of days, and the results are stunning. Odd, you may think, that a Penn & Teller film — Teller directed, Penn produced — seems so bent on revealing a great magician’s secrets, but their evident appreciation of Vermeer, and of Jenison for that matter, only affirms the revelatory power of pure curiosity. The film plays less like an extension of Penn & Teller’s own critical-inquiry cable show Bullshit! than like a refined long episode of the friendlier Mythbusters; even still, this is no prosecutorial debunking, but rather an awed yet also clear-eyed tribute to aesthetic ingenuity.