Can you ever forgive someone who has stolen from you and if so what can that be like? Benjamin Rees explores this in his intimately beautiful The Painter and the Thief.
Barbora Kysilkova paints hyper-realistic work, two of which are on show in a gallery in Oslo. One day, she finds that those two pieces have been stolen in the middle of the night. Not only stolen but somehow expertly unpinned from its 200 nails. The thief’s are promptly found by authorities, she decides that she wants to meet one of the robbers. Throwing us into an unforgettable 3-year journey.
At the beginning of The Painter and the Thief, we are led to believe that this is a simple tale documenting the pain of having valuable (£10,000 to £20,000 apiece). Thrown unexpectedly into a deeper tale that touches upon the futility of the justice system to those who are in vicious cycles and the act of forgiveness. Most importantly, however, this is a story of friendship.
Cleverly Rees does not present us with a linear narrative, flip-flopping back and forth so we can see each perspective of our subjects. This is either where the documentary will keep or lose you. Personally, it enamored us with its inventiveness. This narrative switch allows for emotion and tension to build better than a linear story would have. Ree’s decisions to continually switch ideas are what makes The Painter and the Thief feel so fresh.
Rees wisely allows us to see as much of Nordland’s life as he does of Kysilkova’s which allows our two subjects to be as fully fleshed as possible. What makes this work so well is the chemistry between our two subjects, we discover this after Karl-Bertil agrees for Barbora to draw and paint him. This simple scene shows the dynamic between the two. The general unease and uncomfortableness if their first interactions soon dissipate to a comfortable feeling with soft smiles shared as their session continues.
Without spoiling too many scenes we have decided to only truly detail one. Karl-Bertil’s reaction to seeing the very first piece that Barbora paints of him. Originally stating that he had admired her work in the gallery for a while before he expectantly (even to him) entered the gallery and stole the pieces (he never remembers what happened to them by the way). When Karl-Bertil sees his painting, there is a wide range of emotions, from pure shock to an entire breakdown. Nordland tries to keep Barbora away as he does not want to accept pity or what he feels is pity from her. Minutes go by before he accepts her embrace, a sobbing mess of a man.
It is a truly beautiful scene to witness and somehow. This is not the only scene that will evoke emotion from the audience. The Painter and the Thief are utterly rife with these heart pulling moments. This is thanks to the openness of Kysilkova and Nordland. It is uncomfortable at times as their relationship roams throughout the three years, but it constantly remains fascinating. Both need each other, while they want to admit it or not.
An interesting juxtaposition from Ree is that he allows the other to describe each other’s backgrounds, of course, we would expect to learn more of what caused Nordland to be who he eventually becomes by the documentary’s start. Yet, we are also given a detailed look into the past of Kysilkova.
We find how troubled our thief’s past was yet as shown, Karl-Bertil is not the only one here with demons. Barbora herself is a complex character. Her need to continually be creating, even if that work has ominous tones around it caused by her past. This is a relationship where each is equally taking from it to become better as an individual. Despite this, they remain troubled. Searching for redemption and a release of long-dormant emotions our subjects
The film is full of unexpected turns, which moves you. you want to see Barbora become a successful artist and despite his criminal past that Karl-Bertil finds redemption and becomes the better man he was meant to be. While the twist to get us to our final scenes is slightly manufactured by Rees. it is still rewarding to see this friendship reach the point that it does.
We have a story of redemption and forgiveness, we are left with a truly unique and compelling documentary. Without a doubt, when you get the chance to see The Painter and the Thief go in as blind as possible. The less you know, the more rewarding the experience it will be for you.
To read our other reviews during the London Film Festival please check out below: