The Painter and the Thief is a documentary that makes you wonder how director Benjamin Ree ever got the access he did. Both of the titular figures lay themselves bare in this film, revealing aspects of their lives that are undoubtedly painful. I don't know why they did it, but I sure am glad that they did. Running underneath the film's surface story is a raw, intimate examination of self-destructive impulses and how they can dramatically affect a person's life.
The artist is Barbora Kysilkova, a painter whose work is so detailed that it almost looks like photography. The thief is Karl-Bertil Nordland who, together with an accomplice, stole two of Barbora's paintings from a gallery. He's arrested for the crime, and at the trial, she unexpectedly asks if she can do a portrait of him. Feeling guilty, he agrees. Naturally, she wants to know where her painting is. Karl-Bertil claims not to know, saying that he was under the influence of drugs at the time. Heavily tattooed and boasting a criminal record, he never considered the impact of his actions on anyone other than himself until meeting Barbora.
The two amazingly become close friends. Over the course of the film, we learn that Barbora is troubled too, albeit not in the same illicit way. One of the most stunning moments in The Painter and the Thief comes when Barbora's boyfriend confronts her during a therapy session, suggesting that an element of emotional debasement fuels her art. She tries to pass it off as a joke, but he calls her on it. The revelation makes sense, helping us understand that a commonality might be what's drawing her to the thief.
The dynamic between Barbora and Karl-Bertil is mesmerizing, in that neither of them is quite what you think at the beginning. On one hand, she is kind and empathetic to him, displaying a willingness to forgive that many of us couldn't dream of achieving. On the other, we have to wonder if her desire to repeatedly paint him is, in some way, a type of exploitation, as in “you took something from me, so now I'll take something from you.” Similarly, he's more than the druggie crook a quick glance suggests. Another stunning moment comes when Karl-Bertil sees Barbora's first painting of him and immediately breaks down crying. It's obvious that he feels seen in a manner he's unaccustomed to.
Ree has an unusual technique of unfolding the events, one that serves to pull us in more and more. He jumps around a little in the time frame, so that bits of information are withheld from us until a point where they can have an impact. The effect is that you often assume you have these two individuals all figured out, then learn some new thing about them that reveals additional depth. By the time the end credits roll, you really do know them because they've both bared their souls to the camera.
One or two spots in the documentary are needlessly prolonged, such as a sequence of Karl-Bertil recuperating after an accident. Other than that minor issue, The Painter and the Thief is utterly riveting. Fate brought these people together in the strangest of ways. How their friendship develops and evolves is continually surprising and always touching. In the end, the point is that humans are complicated, but sometimes one person's complexity compliments another's in a healing fashion.
I'll be thinking about this documentary for a long time.
out of four
The Painter and the Thief is unrated, but contains strong language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.