Benjamin Ree’s “The Painter and the Thief” is an unusual, cathartic experience, to say the least. It’s not only a literal portrait of trauma and art as they meet, but the human capacity for absolution and the obsessive. When we exist with great pain and intensity, these things can be manipulated to serve art. Such is the case in Ree’s film, where Czech artist, Barbora Kysilkova, befriends a thief who stole two of her beloved paintings, works of art reeling from her own past trauma.

The two crooks who stole from Barbora are apprehended, thanks to video surveillance. The fact of the matter is that Barbora is deeply invested in the loss of her property, paint on canvas that can only be described as pieces of herself. At the court hearing, Barbora approaches Karl-Bertil Nordland, a reckless career criminal and junkie with the words, “Snitches Are A Dying Breed” tattooed on his chest, and simply asks if she could paint a portrait of him. A physical manifestation of the void he brought her quickly overturns into an emotional reveal, and the two become nearly inseparable.

Ree’s film travels through the humanity of forgiveness and what that comes to look like for Barbora, who has formed a bond and light mentorship to Karl. She reveals her finished portrait of him (can partly be seen below) to a soul-stirred Karl who begins to sob at the sight of himself on canvas. It rattles him and they embrace with a hug. It’s a startling sight to see him, a man rough around the edges and down the path of crime, break down in awe from his own portrait. To break his shell doesn’t seem so difficult once he declares his reasons for stealing her artwork was that he thought it beautiful. The two spend time together, discuss art and life, and work on a complicated rhythm that always feels singularly strange. Karl is opened like a book, revealing an individual who relishes art, takes his hand at writing letters and hides a sensational pursuit for redemption. He is an addict and is time and time again involved in motor accidents, each instance inching closer to death. There’s a compelling side to him that you cannot look away from.

Sundance Institute/ NEON

Addictive tendencies aren’t only visible in him but also in Barbora. The painting we see her work on in the time lapsed intro of the feature is “The Swan Song,” a shot of a dying bird in grass. Her paint is slick with movement as it’s seen in her other pieces, somber, dark and peering from places of the mind. She moved to Oslo not long ago and is a struggling artist in the very pointed sense of the term. She lives in a busily decorated flat and is on the brink of possibly losing her space. Money is a deterrent but not in the ways that individually move her. She grows almost obsessive of fixing Karl and it contributes to the most fascinating parts of this story. She’s in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean her past abusive ones don’t have a way of informing her creative output. We see her and her husband discussing the context of her relationship with Karl and it gives viewers a sense that there’s an awareness to it now. It also manages to lure viewers into thinking there is much more at play here than the straightforward codependency.

“The Painter and the Thief” can be damning at times, inviting viewers to judge what’s onscreen and lean to perceive their bond as a hyper fascination an artist comes to have with their subject. At some points, it feels as though Barbora is using Karl’s downward spiral and hurt to contribute to her work and only indulges him when it’s to further fill the aforementioned artistic void. Of course, it’s not easily so plain. There are dynamics that shift as the documentary rolls; Barbora takes heady control from being the victim of theft to being a mentor and collaborator of sorts, Karl progressively reaches his breaking points (more than once) and develops a searing and reflective journey upward. The marvel here is the reconstruction from victim and thief, to artist and art, to friendship. It’s full of reflection, angst and critical thought.

Ree’s documentary films Barbora and Karl like a spectating landscape, following them personally as they imbue onto each other a great understanding of trust and support, however unconventional it came to be. It balances art consumed as psychological purification with the infatuation of trauma and recovery, with a stranger-than-fiction friendship at its heart. It’s not until the ending portrait shot is revealed when Ree pulls the curtains for our hungry thought. “The Painter and the Thief” is a stunning unraveling of the human connection.

Rating: ★★★★½


Directed by: Benjamin Ree