The Painter and the Thief (2020)

Director: Benjamin Ree.
Starring: Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova. Norway. 1h 42m.

From a selfish and despicable act of theft came a truly beautiful relationship erupts in Ree’s near perfect documentary that focuses on Czech artist Barbora Kysilkovaand a Norwegian career criminal, Karl-‘Bertil’ Nordland. This tale of forgiveness, obsession, friendship and love is what we need to see in this crazy climate where everyone seems to be lacking those tangible experiences, does it restore faith in humanity? It’s certainly a highlight of the simplistic Scandinavian ethos of rehabilitation.

Ree’s takes his time to build the story, the opening see’s the driven artist set up her palette and canvas before her biggest show back in 2015, Barbora’s talent for photo realistic portraiture is outstanding and having recently relocated to Oslo from Berlin, she’s excited to actually start making some money on her show, however two of her biggest paintings, Swan Song and Chloe and Emma, combined, worth 20,000 Euros, in front of security and in broad daylight they are carefully uproot over 200 staples to gently remove the canvases from the frames, something that would take an expert at least an hour, then roll them up and leave like any other tourist.

Barbora becomes obsessed with finding her paintings in some animated scenes she argues “why my paintings it’s not like i’m Van Gogh” due to her desperate pursuit she’s eventually offered a rare opportunity to contact one of the people convicted of the theft. Instead of the typical rage that would be expected, she’s open and calm, interested to know more about the heavily tattooed man and asks for him to model for her. The moment she reveals the painting to him is breathtaking and heartbreaking, as he bursts into tears, a true highlight of how raw and deep this movie becomes at times.

The fly on the wall approach is effective, as the outbursts of emotion come across as if there’s no one else in the room, but as it’s so powerful it does sometimes feel a little scripted, but only because the subjects and what they go through are so different in this remarkable documentary. At some point Karl confesses that he wanted the paintings because they were so beautiful, and Barbora suggests that she fell in love with Karl on a soul level,while being battered by her lover during therapy.

It’s their attraction to the beauty within each other which helps with the overarching second half of the movie after Karl has a incredibly life changing car accident leaving him crippled but Barbora does not leave his side, arguing for better care, spending money that she does not have on him, and like a guardian angel she helps rehabilitate him both physically, mentally and ultimately spiritually, but then the tables turn.

With a dramatic shift in perspective, Ree now spends more time with Karl, who now with a clearer head can see more in Barbora than before and now it’s his turn to come to her rescue, and even Barbora doesn’t realise the desperation yet.

With is muted tones and dark atmosphere there’s a somber tone throughout this tragically uplifting movie, there is a strange delicacy about it, the characters are so against the grain of modern man, where most would be hurt and angry, they are so forgiving and go beyond to try and understand each other. The film ends as it begins, and that’s with a painting, something very familiar and yet very different, it easily gives chills as the camera slowly pans out from Barbora’s back to the new epic, hyper realistic painting that if you passed in a gallery you’d marvel at, but picking out the details and knowing the journey, makes it priceless.


Rating 9/10

Lists – A-Z of Norwegian Cinema, 10 of my favourite Docufilms Vol 1, Artist Biographies, Heist Movies Vol 1
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