“The Painter and the Thief” (2020) Review

Dir. Benjamin Ree; Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil-Nordland

[4 out of 4 stars]

The story at the heart of Benjamin Ree’s stirring documentary The Painter and the Thief (2020) is one of those that exist in the territory of “you couldn’t write this.’ Karl Bertil-Nordland breaks into a gallery and steals two of Barbora Kysilkova’s most personal paintings. He is then caught but has no memory of what happened to the paintings because of how high he was when he stole them. You would imagine that the relationship between the painter and thief would end in the courtroom. You would be wrong. Instead, after a short conversation in the courtroom, Karl and Barbora begin a friendship that unfolds on camera over the course of the next few years, growing deeper and ever more resonant as time goes on. What begins as Karl posing for Barbora as a penance for stealing her paintings evolves into a bond between two people who have suffered great trauma. In documenting the following years both in the time they spend together and periods when they are kept apart, Ree crafts a meditative documentary that asks audiences to consider questions of empathy, love, and forgiveness. 

We often blow past the task of crafting a  narrative structure for documentaries. It is easier to reflect on fictional storytelling because there is a screenplay.  Though documentaries relay factual stories that have a sequence of events to follow, there are innumerable narrative choices: deciding what parts of that real-life story to show, how to frame figures within it, and in what order to introduce information. This is often as complex as writing a whole-cloth fictional story. In The Painter and the Thief, Ree’s directorial challenge was to help audiences understand each of his main figures and the relationship between them. The Painter and the Thief could just as easily have become a piece exclusively about Barbora, her artistic career, and how Karl’s crime impacted her. It could have been Karl’s story alone, revealing how he resorted to crime and then found a way out of it. Ree achieves a balance by arranging his story in a brilliant cascading way: we see it through Barbora’s perspective and then double back to see it through Karl’s, moving a little past where we ended with Barbora and then cutting back to her perspective to do the same. By covering the same events and moments from dual perspectives, we linger on the emotional beats that arise for each figure and understand better how their friendship develops. 

Considering how Ree assembles these narratives, I cannot help but notice a similarity between Barbora’s approach to painting and Ree’s filmmaking sensibilities. Ree intersperses the documentary with footage of Barbora chipping away at her complex and realistic paintings, and so we see these pieces from blank canvas to finished product. It is a rare opportunity to see art in progress, a viewpoint artists often keep audiences away from so that they can simply enjoy the polished final product. Like Barbora’s paintings, Ree’s construction of the documentary allows us intimate access into Barbora and Karl’s arcs. We watch Barbora paint, go to therapy and struggle to help her boyfriend Øystein comprehend the bond she and Karl share, and even open bills from the mail that she knows she is unable to pay without Øystein’s support. Strikingly, we see Karl at the beginning as a gaunt and severely depressed drug addict, and over the course of his friendship and artistic collaboration with Barbora, we see him grow healthier, fall back into destructive habits, and then reach a level of peace and health. It is the distinct ability of well-crafted documentaries to enlighten us to the lives of ordinary people, those who are not the hallowed historical figures and popstars who earn lavish biopics, but whose experiences are as moving as anything Hollywood can churn out. The Painter and the Thief works so well because Barbora and Karl are both people who have struggled with the horrors of abuse and poverty and find within each other the basic human connection of empathy that becomes the love two friends can share and use to support one another on their respective journeys. No special effects or celebrities needed, just flawed but magnificent humanity.

Ree also happens to be a gifted visual storyteller, and he serves here both as director and co-cinematographer. The majority of the documentary takes place in Oslo and Ree revels in the characteristic grayness and rainy climate of the city. The muted palette of the city and the various buildings and locales Karl and Barbora move through to allow their vibrancy, both in their outfits and personalities, to remain always at the center of the frame. Ree takes pains to make his shots and framings direct without ever becoming distracting. He often lingers in medium shots that allow us to steep in the setting and grow used to watching Barbora and Karl. The result is a visual language that invites us to feel like someone else in the room, not remote and removed from the story at hand, but a silent figure just as present as anyone else on the screen. When Ree opts for more noticeable cinematographic choices, they punctuate a moment instead of distracting from it. When Karl relapses and his girlfriend walks away, leaving him in a park to stew in his choices, Ree’s handheld camera lingers on him, slowly moving in as he tears up. It is stylized, but the flourish underscores Karl’s pain without fetishizing it for a manipulative emotional beat. Just like his subject Barbora, Ree has a painterly eye for emotion and detail hiding the darker corners of human nature that we often write off as being devoid of beauty, but The Painter and the Thief suggest that it is the beauty in that pain that makes Karl and Barbora’s triumphs all the more moving.

The Painter and the Thief is the sort of film that I love writing about because it is one that I imagine has passed under the radar for most. It is not a widely-trumpeted release, and without any flashy producers, it is one of many first-rate projects that fade into streaming libraries without finding the audiences they deserve. Part of the job of the critic is to break through the noise of seemingly endless new releases to suggest that, if you have a spare few hours, you should give this film a shot. In the case of The Painter and the Thief, watching it is deciding to slow down and give yourself over to a piece of storytelling that asks you to reflect and pause. It is, for all its challenging content, an elegant and methodical artwork that never hurries along, content to linger in the beauty and the pain of each moment. I, for one, needed the reminder that it is vital to slow down and sit without judgment. The Painter and the Thief is an essential prod to remember that although it is easy to fixate on the difficult parts of life, there is beauty all around us. It will not fix our deepest pains, but it might just help you find someone else who will help you bear it better, and let you return the favor.

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