Some directors are born to documentary filmmaking. To be able to build an arc through real-life events, to capture the essence of real people and their challenges, building enough trust with those subjects to get at deeper truths, to keep an audience connected to the subjects, these are what make a great documentarian. Benjamin Ree has 15 short documentaries to his credit. With his second feature, the Norwegian director brings all these elements to The Painter and the Thief, which won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling at 2020’s Sundance Film Festival. Distributor Neon is releasing the film through video on demand on May 22nd.
The Painter and the Thief is the remarkable, transformative story of little-known Caravaggio-influenced Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, known as Barbar, and former addict and poet Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her paintings from a group show at Galleri Nobel in Oslo on April 20th, 2015. The paintings, one called “Chloe & Emma”, the other “Swan Song”, captured her modern, hyper-realistic, darkness-meets-physicality aesthetic. When Barbar found herself in the position to speak to Karl-Bertil, one of two perpetrators, she took it. That meeting began a long and complicated friendship that demanded forgiveness, truthfulness, self-exploration, and acceptance. The Painter and the Thief seems to capture it all.
The start of Ree’s journey in creating the film began with a curiosity about art theft, and who the thieves actually were that committed these crimes. After much searching, he stumbled onto an art theft at Gallery Nobel in Oslo in 2015. The director explains it best himself. “The thing that really piqued my interest was when I learned that the artist had asked the thief if she could paint him. I contacted the painter, and the story I was about to capture would blow my mind. When I began filming, which was about the fourth time Barbora and Karl-Bertil met, I did not know that they were going to become friends. I actually didn’t know anything about where the story would go. That’s always my favorite way of starting a project. Knowing nothing, just following my curiosity—and the film ended up not being about art theft, but about an intricate and unusual friendship.” He filmed for three years, finding that both subjects openly displayed their emotions, which were, as he says, “passionate, direct, sensitive and multi-layered.” Ultimately, he explains, his story is driven by two questions. “What do we humans do to be seen and appreciated, and why do we help others?”
Jumping back and forth in time, Ree explores their relationship to each other, to themselves, and to art. There is no moment too intimate or too raw, leading viewers to feel as uncomfortable, and often as conflicted, as the subjects themselves clearly feel. Their experiences, and the events in each of their lives, whether they bring them together or repel them, are so compelling to watch, it’s almost excruciating. There are a number of qualities they share, including a self destructiveness, which they are only sometimes aware of, but which is patently clear to the audience.
At Sundance, a friend and I were chatting about our favorite films. His mention of The Painter and the Thief was only the first of many times colleagues in both the film world and the art world would recommend the movie to me. His description to me, however, made me think two things: I’d never forgive someone for stealing my art, and this artist must be crazy to become friends with him. Seeing the film makes me ashamed of that reaction. It’s true that, in part, Barbar’s draw to Karl-Bertil comes from a dangerous attraction to darkness that her boyfriend described as a part of her that is ‘like a child sent out to play in the middle of the freeway’. It’s also very clear that it comes from an exquisite kindness we should all be inspired to cultivate.
The film’s conclusion, and there is a very clear trajectory leading to it, is a powerful gut-punch. At that point, you are not only in love with both Barbar and Karl-Bertil, you can’t decide if you want to pay for their therapy, buy a painting, or try to forget they exist, so you can escape the call to that level of self-examination. Barbar’s paintings capture a moment of stillness that calls into question whether the subjects are alive or dead. It is the same sort of inquiry that both the painter and the thief explore and ask of themselves in this film, making it a soul-stirring, life-affirming watch.
5 out of 5 stars.