THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (2020)
Directed by Benjamin Ree
In 2015 two paintings were stolen from an Oslo art gallery, the work of Czech naturalist Barbora Kysilkova who had just moved to the city. Surveillance cameras captured the theft and the culprits were easily identified. One of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, is confronted by Barbora in the court room where she asks him why he did it. He responds, “because they were beautiful.” Here’s where the story takes a fascinating turn. Barbora, the classic definition of a starving artist, being young and not established, asks Karl-Bertil if she can paint him when he’s released from prison. He agrees and the two strike up an unlikely friendship filled with highs and lows in this Sundance award-winning documentary from Benjamin Ree.
Watching events unfold in Ree’s documentary is one of the best movie-watching experiences you’ll have this year. Quickly, the documentary becomes a character study of Barbora and Karl-Bertil whose temperaments may surprise you by the documentary’s end as it throws social stigmas right out the window. It’s evident that these two individuals were on a predetermined course to connect after we watch their lives change for the better over the vicissitudes of three years.
The idea for the documentary came after Ree googled art thefts and came across the news story about the Oslo gallery. The filmmaker, fascinated by individuals whose passion for art consumes them to the point that they become criminals, contacted Barbora about the possibility of a documentary not realizing he was about to strike gold. She agreed and then contacted Karl-Bertil who also decided to go along with Ree’s request.
Ree’s camera becomes a therapist to both protagonists who shed layers to give us a glimpse at their true selves and it doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. Barbora is obviously a free spirit but her sense of wonderment also puts her in precarious situations as pointed out by partner Øystein Stene who compares her choices to that of a mother letting her child play in traffic. Remember, she invited a junkie who had already served time in prison with ties to local gangsters into her studio and life just because she felt compelled to paint him.
The documentary begins with its focus on Barbora but eventually the focal point shifts to Karl-Bertil aka “The Bertilizer,” who many people would see as a tatted up thug, an image no less dispelled by his “Snitches Are A Dying Breed” ink and his choice of clothing that includes shirts that read “Crime Pays” and “Fat people are hard to kidnap.” He comes off as a character straight out of “Trainspotting” so it’s fascinating once we get to know him and easy to feel empathy as he discusses his troubled childhood, his former job working with special needs kids, and his talent as a carpenter.
Like any addict, the road to recovery is filled with setbacks, and we watch as Karl-Bertil puts himself in the hospital after making bad choices but throughout the course of the film, Barbora never abandons her friend, the person who entered her life by stealing her artwork. And I should point out that Karl-Bertil was so messed up on drugs at the time of the robbery that by his own admission he couldn’t remember what he did with Barbora’s painting and she still insisted on painting him, would you do that?
“The Painter and the Thief” is the best documentary I’ve seen this year. It’s an extraordinary achievement by Ree who directed the 2016 documentary “Magnus” about Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen. It’s always compelling to watch a victim reach out to the perpetrator but rarely do you see a relationship and a friendship like this evolve between the two. It would have been interesting to hear more about Karl-Bertil’s accomplice, but the art theft becomes the background setting as the journey to self-development for Barbora and Karl-Bertil develops into the documentary’s prime focus.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday via Virtual Cinema. To watch go to https://neonrated.com/films/the-painter-and-the-thief