the painter and the thief
REVIEWER: lyall carter
An artist befriends the thief who stole her paintings. She becomes his closest ally when he is severely hurt in a car crash and needs full time care, even if her paintings are not found. But then the tables turn.
Documentary filmmaking, at its heart, is supposed to get so close to its subjects that it almost reveals the inner life of its subject. The Painter and the Thief is the epitome of outstanding documentary filmmaking as it beautifully reveals its two subjects in all of their stunning rawness.
When two paintings are stolen from Oslo-based artist Barbora Kysilkova, the police catch the thieves within a few days. But the paintings are never found. Barbora attends the court case hoping to find clues for where they can be but finds herself compelled to walk over to one of the criminals to ask another question: “I wonder if I could paint you?” Thief Karl-Bertil answers without hesitation: “That would be possible.”
Thus begins the relationship between an artist and her unlikely muse—which soon evolves into an even more unlikely friendship. Barbora eventually becomes Karl-Bertil’s closest ally when he is severely hurt in a car crash and needs full time care. Filmed over three years, the documentary follows a remarkable story of human connection that takes turns that one could never have imagined.
One scene beautifully encapsulates the raw emotional power of The Painter and the Thief. Barbora paints Karl-Bertil’s portrait. Instead of being seen as a thief, drug addict or a thorn in the flesh of society, Barbora perfectly captures the beauty beyond all of his afflictions.
This causes Karl-Bertil to break down sobbing uncontrollably, refusing Barbora’s comfort at first. In this scene, without words or any direct to camera interview, director Benjamin Ree brilliantly captures the inner workings of Karl-Bertil’s mind and heart. Finally, the pictures of Karl-Bertil weeping appear to scream from the silver screen, after all these years I have been truly seen.
And while throughout the film we are made aware of the tragedy of Karl-Bertil’s background from his traumatic childhood to his current destructive and dysfunctional life, we also discover Barbora’s pull to the ‘dark side’ and her tendency towards taking giant emotional leaps of faith.
It’s not only the uniqueness of the story which makes this documentary so powerfully entertaining but the way in which Ree has shot and edited it. He has a particular cinematic approach in that there are no direct interviews to camera or other intrusions from the filmmaker. In that way it feels much more like a drama than a documentary and, ironically, more of a true documentary in which the production crew blend into the background as the story unfolds.
The Painter and the Thief is the epitome of outstanding documentary filmmaking as it beautifully reveals its two subjects in all of their stunning rawness.