The Painter and the Thief Review
It would be far too easy to dismiss the central premise of this documentary as a contrast between the have and the have-nots or the talented and the socially backward. You'd be forgiven for thinking that as you see the central act unfold — where an artist's soul and literal livelihood is stolen before our eyes, the culprit is caught and the case closed.
Most individuals fail to understand criminals, sometimes in the same way they fail to understand art. For sure, they're at far ends of the spectrum — where one is damaged and causes further destruction the other is damaged and brings life — and not everyone is able to change and become responsible for their own actions. Benjamin Ree's documentary is not journalism, it is experiential — a cathartic masterpiece that presents a simple story dealing with complex emotions — placing you on your own journey of understanding the life of another less fortunate. I'll be honest, in seeing the central crime unfold, I was furious. Then, I found myself disarmed, and this is where the film has you. Where the real story begins.
When two of her paintings are stolen from an Oslo exhibition, Czech Painter Barbora Kysilkova (A.K.A BARBAR) begins to develop a relationship with one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, when she approaches him at his criminal hearing. It begins with painting his portrait but what unfolds through her studies over the years is an astonishing self discovery and understanding between the two that develops into a genuine friendship, some would even say a love story.
Ree cleverly edits and shifts perspectives throughout to reveal the trauma and vulnerabilities of both Barbora and Bertil. They both begin to recognise they are not too dissimilar, sharing open wounds and revealing their self-destructive behaviour. In her own words, Barbora is 'a painting junkie' — her naturalistic oil paintings, a meticulous reimagining of everyday lives juxtaposed against dark fantasies. Before her work is stolen we first see the paintings presented on huge canvases behind the exhibition's windows. CCTV captures the thieves casually helping themselves — her work literally skinned alive as they are cut from their frames and rolled up, never to be seen again.
Bertil barely has any memory of the night in question, revealing Barbora that he picked them up, '...because they were beautiful.' He can't recall what he did with them — it was never planned — and in the state he presents himself for the majority of the film, we can believe him as much as Barbora does. All she wants to do is understand.
Barbora is a phenomenal artist because truth is what she looks for with a unique and refreshing vision. On every level — from her research, questioning and sketches — she has a curious gaze as though in awe of her subject that yearns for a deeper understanding. The only way for her to move forward from her own past is to turn it all into a positive experience. Like a true artist she turns Bertil into her latest study. 'I might not even find out where the paintings are.' But my God does she get something back from him in the process... and so do we.
When he arrives at her studio 20 minutes late, we see how patient she is as she begins sketching him — spending as much time in his company as possible — asking question after question. He is distracted, distant, most of the time high as a broken kite. He remains quiet, even at his most sober. She continues to interview, 'Can you remember every crime?' to which he responds, 'I can tell you more about how I became a criminal, a drug addict.' The story unfolds like a riveting drama as he reveals the death of his friends, how he fell into gangs. They smoke together. They connect and all the while your opinions begin to shift. It's incredibly moving to hear him share his story, before she reveals his portrait.
It's a powerful moment to say the least. When Bertil — still clearly lost and under the influence — sees his portrait for the first time it is genuinely one of the most moving and cathartic experiences I have seen in any film. It is raw and honest and presents a man who is staring at his own dark soul on a canvas. I broke down with him and I would challenge anyone not to feel the same way as you are challenged to understand why he does what he does. The documentary is a supreme study of the human condition as you struggle to comprehend one man's actions, and yet Ree manages to capture and present one of the most transcendent pieces of work in recent years.
What strange syndrome do we call this? The Francis Bacon effect perhaps? Bacon's own thief, George Dyer, became his muse and lover — one of the paintings of Dwyer eventually selling for £42m. Ultimately, all of this begs the most important question — do we believe in forgiveness and retribution? In Norway, the justice system is quite something. I won't go into it here but if you haven't watched it check out Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next (2015) for a clear picture and it will help shine further light on all of this.
As we spend more time with Bertil we are brought into his home where we see it is full of art. But where has he acquired it? Is it his own, given to him, bought or stolen? Barbora is just as interested in the shoes from his childhood that rest next to some original paintings. Her kindness and artistic eye has revealed a gentle soul 'Art isn't just a painting but so much more. All the feelings, the tears.' She knows everything about the thief from his favourite film to the food he eats .
Those moments in the documentary are less about the broad strokes of a life painted on canvas but the intricate details, the individual sketches and photographs. It is heartbreaking to watch these two disparate figures connect. Forgiveness. Compassion. The rehabilitation we are witness to through Barbora and Bertil's connection is an emotional, physical and spiritual journey. We see the patient and supportive partners along with the fractures and physical transformations that go beyond scripted drama.
There is a Nordic Kama hanging over Ree's documentary and to say anymore would ruin it. Suffice to say I've only scratched the surface with how emotionally invested you'll become but I wouldn't be exaggerating here in making some parallels (even parables) to the hero's journey where we witness an imprisoned Viking descending into a frozen land as Thor arms himself with a fishing rod instead of a hammer. The final question our painter asks her thief, and the answer he shares with us all, delivers the most perfect of endings.
The Painter and the Thief is released on May 22nd