BFI LFF 2020

The Painter and the Thief review – unbelievably true tale of improbable friendship

Benjamin Ree’s fascinating documentary explores the relationship between an artist and the complicated man who stole her paintings

The premise of The Painter and the Thief is almost too good to be true: an artist befriending the criminal who stole their most valuable work. Yet refraining from any over-dramatics a story like this might invite, filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s intriguing documentary makes for an arresting portrait of the human connection.

This unbelievable tale of improbable friendship begins with Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech artist living in Norway, watching footage of her two stunningly photorealistic paintings being stolen. “Chloe & Emma” and “Swan Song” are rolled up and dragged away – and with them a fraction of Barbora’s heart.

Unable to hold back her intrigue, she extends an olive branch to Karl Bertil-Nordland, one of the thieves, who agrees to sit for a portrait. In the hours of sitting, a friendship flourishes. Yet, no matter how many times Barbora questions her subject, Nordland denies any knowledge or whereabouts of the missing art, claiming the theft took place during a drug-hazed blur.

Painting is Barbora’s act of empathy. She sees beauty in his scars and intricacies of his tattoos; the cut in his hand becomes a mark of boldness from delicate brush strokes. “She sees me very well, but she forgets that I can see her too,” Nordland says. What seems like an insidious remark is, instead, an astute observation on the artistic gaze. It is here that Ree disrupts the cinéma vérité form: defenestrating the power dynamic of artist and subject and reinstating the layered complexity of each real person. It is no longer what Nordland did but what Nordland gives that is poignant.

Shifting perspective from Barbora to Nordland, The Painter and the Thief moves effortlessly from art heist drama to fascinating rumination on prison reform. In and out of jail and battling a long-term drug addiction, Nordland is an unpredictable individual whose brutal relapses are heartbreaking to discover. Implicitly, The Painter and the Thief paints the institutional failure of the criminal justice system while unfurling the pervading power of art. Although Barbora’s portrait isn’t solely restorative, Nordland is offered a compassionate connection while staring at a painted reflection of himself. Ree’s camera might linger, but it respectfully avoids trespassing in these vulnerable moments.

Like an unmoving oil paint stain, Barbora’s hope cannot be washed away. The Painter and the Thief is itself an abstract portrait. A piece that unguardedly captures, from criminal to muse, the unlikeliest of friendships.

The Painter and the Thief was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. It will be released in cinemas on October 30.

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