A painter has a show in an art gallery. A drug addict in the middle of an extended binge breaks into said gallery with another man and steals two of the painter’s works. When the thief comes down and is arrested for the crime, he remembers nothing of where he put either painting. It doesn’t sound like the beginning of a friendship, or a documentary, but it is both. And, it is wonderful.
Directed by Benjamin Ree, “The Painter and the Thief” is an amazing, terribly touching, tale of these two individuals – quite literally, the painter and the thief. They are both struggling, certainly, with their own issues, but they come to understand, and lean on, one another. Both their lives are forever altered by this incident and somehow Ree’s camera is present for nearly everything after the theft (which is recorded by surveillance cameras).
The painter, Barbora Kysilkova, and the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, are two of the most engaging individuals this critic has seen in a documentary in a long time. Part of this is who they are, and part of it is Ree’s keeping the camera right there with his subjects in moments big and small.
It is an intimate portrayal that Ree offers up and it is astounding that Barbora and Karl-Bertil are as open as they are. It is, of course, equally astounding that when Barbora approaches Karl-Bertil in court (a moment where only the audio is captured), he is willing to talk with her and agrees to meet with her later. He then winds up becoming a model for one of her naturalistic paintings. When he sees the painting itself for the first time, Karl-Bertil openly weeps. It is a truly powerful moment, heartfelt and pure.
Not content to simply let the story unfold as is, Ree has a trick or two up his sleeve that only becomes clear 30 minutes into the story. It is then that he resets everything. Having given us Barbora’s viewpoint of events for a half-hour, we then get Karl-Bertil’s. It is an astounding switch, one that tells us just how little we really understood of Karl-Bertil.
As a couple of more perspective shifts come down the line, we begin to understand that no matter how much we see of the painter and the thief, we will never truly know it all. However, just as Barbora’s paintings show some of the beauty within terrible things, there is something lovely about it all.
Eschewing sit downs with the camera and with only one or two moments where it evens seems as though there was an off camera prompt from Ree or someone else working on the film, “The Painter and the Thief” is a stunningly intimate work and it remains so even if we know that there always remains a barrier between the camera and the subject.
What Ree has done is to create his own version of one of Barbora’s naturalistic paintings. It is a portrait of two people and the private moments that show up as well as the pivots in the direction of the story offer up the sense that Ree is moving from one area of the canvas to another. He is moving to fill in a blank portion, to provide a more full image. It isn’t the full truth, it is clear that it, like a painting, is a work of art, a simulacrum, but it resembles reality.
The entire structure of the film is an incredibly confident manner in which to build a documentary. Ree’s direction feels assured. He cannot have known when he began the tale how it would play out—it covers roughly three years of time—but Ree is masterful in showing it to us.
Do not miss “The Painter and the Thief,” as odd as the entire idea of it ay sound, it is a true wonder to behold.
photo credit: Neon