There’s a moment in Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief when Karl-Bertil first sees the painting Barbora has made of him. The raw emotion that he expresses is unlike anything else, a man so affected by the version of himself on the canvas that he breaks down, unable to say what it means to him. That moment will stay with me for a long time.
Barbora Kyslikova had not long moved to Oslo when two of her most important works were stolen from a gallery by two men. The paintings, which stood 4x6ft tall in the windows of the gallery, were carefully removed from their frames nail by nail, a courtesy not often provided by art thieves.
Karl Bertil-Nordland was a broken man on a four-day drug bender and had no recollection of how he stole the paintings, the location of them was as much a mystery to him as it was to everyone else. When Barbora asked to paint him, what else could he say but yes?
The film is split into two parts – ‘The Painter’ and ‘The Thief’ – and we learn about each of them through the words of the other, a touch so simple yet so effective. From the beginning, the relationship between Karl-Bertil and Barbora is impossible to define.
The story of the paintings themselves, whilst interesting, is just a backdrop for what is a tale of human growth and interaction. It is a film of intimacy and trust stemming from an inherently untrustworthy event.
We learn that Karl-Bertil is much more than a thief, he is a skilled man plagued by childhood trauma and drug addiction. The initial image of the scary criminal is peeled back to reveal a man with so much to offer.
Midway through the film he gets into a car accident that renders him struggling to walk, we learn about Barbora and how she is obsessed with humanity’s dark side, an infatuation that worries her loving partner Øystein. She paints the cut from Karl-Bertil’s hand, fascinated by its Jesus like placement, and, despite having every reason to leave, supports him through recovery.
The Painter and the Thief is a powerful exploration of the human condition and is by far one of the most exciting documentaries in years. Ree’s filmmaking is perfect, he is invisible throughout, letting the stories speak for themselves. While there is a stretch in the middle that felt a quite slow and awkward it doesn’t detract from the talent he has shown as a director.
Featured image credit: image.net