The Painter and the Thief
Director: Benjamin Ree
At first I imagined that this Nordic documentary by Benjamin Ree would centre on the emotions of the artist whose two paintings were stolen from a Norwegian gallery. Undoubtedly, she would feel anger but surely, also a degree of pride that her works – amongst others – had been chosen?
Of course, there is a little of this ‘chuff’ in artist Barbora Kysilkova, who approaches thief Karl-Bertil Nordland in a court setting and asks his motives. ‘The paintings were beautiful’ was his response. He’d been on a three day drug rampage and remembered very little of the incident. She asks him to sit for her.
‘The Painter and the Thief’ is about so much more than vanity and the beauty of a painted canvas, and documentary-maker Ree has brought in a raw, intimate and engrossing film about the building relationship of two outliers and what can only be described as their transformative, outlier belief in each other. It makes for a truly uplifting outcome in our world of cynicism and distrust.
I could rabbit on about art theory. About photo-realist Barbora Kysilkova (the artist) allowing herself to become the subject of documentary as an extension of her artwork, or about how Barbora appropriates thief Karl-Bertil Nordland’s image in recompense for her own stolen canvases (images) by stipulating that he sits long periods for her.
The above theory is far too simplistic and transactional however, a flimsy insight in comparison to the actual; as these two open human beings come to know each, sharing their past and present joys and pain, giving each other trusting hugs, inviting each other to meet their respective partners, see their homes, know and understand each other’s lives.
This is no fairy-tale. ‘The Painter and the Thief’ is raw, painful, with memories of violence and neglect not far from the surface on both sides … For example, our hearts fall at a tragic moment in the documentary when drug addict/criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland (doesn’t one usually precede the other) buys heroin instead of registering into a detox clinic.
Another wonder of this documentary is capturing how artist Barbora retrieves one of her stolen artworks, having a clandestine meeting with a woman who lives in the same apartment block as a ‘Mr Big’ style of small time gangster. The women go hunting through the basement of the building and Barbora spies her rolled artwork undamaged and intact … quite possibly never having been shown since its theft.
No matter how jaded you may be, ‘The Painter and the Thief’ will restore some of your faith in how two complex, predominantly good though damaged human beings can restore each other in unfathomable ways through their belief and love for one another. In the case of one; a drug-addled individual neglected as a child; by ending a life spiral to the depths of criminality … and the other, the artist, by not having her natural compassion and belief in human beings stomped on (yet again) by an unappreciative receiver of her generosity.
The ‘Painter and the Thief’ delivers something so transforming that it chips away at the cynicism of an audience who is used to the manipulative emotional highs and lows of most cinematic and video experience. The finale is that a life seemingly beyond hope is saved and we are privileged to witness this miracle because it has been captured on film.
Did the in-the-moment filming of these two human lives impact on the outcome of their stories? I really don't know ...