The Painter and the Thief: Portrait of a Thief on Fire

We never know why someone enters our lives. Stranger than fiction, in the case of The Painter and the Thief, it is through spiritual providence. The remarkable Norweigan documentary finds an artist creating a meaningful relationship with the very thief that stole her art. Good thing for us, documentarian Benjamin Ree was already entrenched in the story by the time the case went to court, perhaps the truer act of providence. Upon confrontation with her thief, Barbora Kysilkova claims they have stolen her art and a part of her and wonders, would the criminal pose for her next portrait?

The Painter and the Thief - Still 1
The Painter and the Thief. Dir. Benjamin Ree.

The story grows beyond anything that could be crafted from here. It would be enough, and cute in itself, to tell the extremely personal story of an artist reclaiming her art, an individual who creates without much monetary gain, just finding out why. Instead, the whole project snowballs into an astounding human story. Kysilkova and her subject, Karl-Bertil Nordland, find great pleasure in each other’s company. They are kindred spirits, where the artist lives dangerously on the canvas, her thief lives dangerously in life. They are a perfect odd couple and they needed to find each other.

Benjamin Ree provides expert shape to the documentary. Within the genre’s criticism, we’re always trying to work out where and how the director’s perspective shapes the work. Ree carefully withholds information that will benefit his story. It is composed in a narrative fashion, where we’re so enamored with the unreality and extremity of what is found, that the author is sneakily able to control the emotional arc of the picture with invisibility. He is a damn good documentarian and it’s worth checking out his prior project, Magnus (2016), about a Norweigan chess prodigy who becomes a grandmaster at an early age, it’s also neatly riveting and personal. Ree seems to find just the right inflection points, where he can create value for anyone else’s stories. Here, he gives so much confidence to his subjects, and perhaps through his own input, allows their story to flourish and captures the raw nerves of his subjects.

The Painter and the Thief. Dir. Benjamin Ree.

There are superlative twists this critic would prefer the audience to see and not read. It’s beautiful when filming true-life provides its own act structure, a narrative of highs, middles, and lows, ripe with audience interest. The very idea engages the heart: a thief truly stole a part of this person’s life. The initial paintings were ones painted after a harsh breakup from an abusive man. They symbolized the end of one path, the start of another. Through the actions of theft, they have imparted a brand new meaning. Stolen again, were the artist’s agency and freedom of their expression. This time, the man gave her soul back, and so much more.

Neon is craftily cultivating a diverse catalog of documentaries. Do check out their just-released Spaceship Earth for a great science story. And last year, they landed three stunning pictures, with a great range of human interest. One of those pictures, Honeyland (2019) is a brave achievement in cinematography and storytelling. Like that film, The Painter and the Thief constructs an air-tight narrative pulled from a real situation. These two represent a kind of vanguard of expansive storytelling, high on form and function, they reinvigorate the format. For Ree, he has arrived, just as the format became the new vogue, and has a great story to tell.


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