Movie Review: The Painter and the Thief (2020)

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Trading an abusive ex who threatened to kill her in Berlin for a supportive husband in Norway, painter Barbora Kysilkova was eager to start fresh in a new country. Crafting two incredible pieces of art that were featured at the Gallery Nobel in Oslo in 2015, just as her career began to rise, the unthinkable happened as her two "most important" paintings were carefully removed from frames which had secured them with roughly two hundred nails and stolen in a brazen heist in broad daylight.

Both shocked and intrigued, after the two thieves were identified from the video footage and sentenced to seventy-five days in jail, Barbora went to the courthouse to meet the only robber who showed up for the trial in the form of an addict named Karl-Bertil Nordland, the so-called mastermind. Confessing that he'd been on a sleepless four day amphetamine charged drug binge and had no idea what he'd done with the paintings after he made the impulsive decision to steal them, when Barbora asks him what it was about the two works that made him want to take them, an apologetic Karl-Bertil tells her simply, "they were beautiful."

Fascinated by one another, when she invites him to sit for a portrait she's suddenly inspired to paint, he cautiously agrees. Slightly suspicious of her motives, as the two begin to spend more time together, they form an unlikely bond that's as powerful as it is sudden, after Barbora breaks down the walls the private man — an intelligent, former special needs teacher with a traumatic past — has erected to protect himself when he breaks down in front of the portrait she's painted of him.

A contemplative, tender, and moving documentary that won the Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, when Magnus documentarian Benjamin Ree set out to craft a film about art theft, he had no idea that it would evolve into an intimate, affecting study of friendship between two lonely souls who've been through so much.

Originally drawn to the topic because he felt that it could be a study of contrasts where “the socially elevated art industry with a lot of cultural capital meets 'lower-class' criminals with rough backgrounds,” once he read that Barbora had requested to paint her thief, he knew deep down that this was the right subject to pursue.

Initially capturing the two during what he estimates to be the fourth time they met, as he chronicled their relationship over the course of three years, Ree's thesis appears to have changed many times over. And to his credit, as captivated as the filmmaker is by the duo, we find that we are right there with him for each surprising twist in this study which proves yet again that fiction is no match for the unpredictability of facts.

From jaw-dropping pronouncements that catch up with our subjects later on, and are played back to us only after we find out what has happened to them, while sometimes we're slightly confused by the jumps forwards and backwards in time, we remain thoroughly engrossed from start to finish. Wanting to know more about key facts that were slid into the humanistic tapestry weaved by Ree, I found myself wishing that the film had been even longer, in order to better understand the two subjects.

Optimistic that the documentary will encourage people to take a good long look at their own stigmas and preconceptions and remind everyone that you can still be a good, kind person despite your troubles, Karl-Bertil's hope is well-executed in Ree's finished product, which makes you think long and hard about the duality of man and nature vs. nurture. And while I think that the dialogue would've been even more impactful if the film's subtitles were yellow since the small white type threatens to melt into the background of the scenes, the emotional work easily holds us in its thrall.

A soaring ode to the power of human connection, kindness, and empathy, as well as the ways in which art can heal us and bring us together by reaching inside to touch us on a level that can't be accessed with words alone, despite some of its narrative stumbles, this film is truly a balm. Making us wonder about the pasts of those whom we walk by on a daily basis, The Painter and the Thief is the type of movie we need right now to bring us together, making Ree's unpredictable documentary one of the most surprising, quietly arresting works I've seen so far in 2020.

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