There are people whose lives are stranger than fiction that you’ll find yourself thinking, this ought to be a movie. That’s what Benjamin Ree did.
Benjamin Ree follows their beguiling co-dependent friendship of a painter and a thief. He cleverly uses a two-part structure that shows the documentary from two different perspectives.
Karl-Bertil Nordland claims he’s too drugged up to remember what he did to the painting. But he is more articulate than he seems and appreciates art (he stole the painting because it’s beautiful). He’s also perceptive – he wonders if Barbora is setting him up for a trap. “She sees me well”, he says, “but she forgets that I see her, too”.
Barbora Kysilkova is tough but fragile. She asks head-on what happened to the paintings, but drops the topic early. Despite fleeing from an abusive relationship, she’s unafraid to interact with a repeat criminal. But she has motivations of her own – later on, he sees Nordland’s wound from an accident as an aesthetic for a painting.
It becomes clear that they have a lot in common – trauma, abuse, and addiction. Barbora sees Nordland’s self-destructive episodes as a call for help. Nordland sees an artist that is attracted to the dark side.
Ree skillfully picks the right moments and images to reveal his complex subjects in cinematic ways. Nordland wails at the sight of his first portrait. Barbora admits she’s unaware of the risks involved in having a tatted-up junkie as her muse until her boyfriend pointed it out. Towards the end, Nordland nails a canvas onto a frame to help Barbora prepare for an exhibit.
This movie isn’t a traditional documentary, so it often feels like you’re being set-up for an emotional reaction. Ree plays with the timeline and withholds information until it’s the right moment to drop it on your lap.
Regardless, when the film ends, this documentary remains a well-crafted moving stranger-than-fiction tale. Just when you think that the documentary has fizzled in the third act, it ends with a portrait that perfectly captures The Painter and the Thief.
The pained vulnerability of being known, the catharsis of being seen, and how empathy changes the way we see ourselves.
The Painter and The Thief
The Painter and The Thief is an absorbing and touching docudrama about the transformative power of empathy.