Review: ‘The Painter and the Thief’ tells a moving story of true crime and redemption
Early on in “The Painter and the Thief,” a sweepingly emotional new documentary from Norway, the title characters meet for a momentous unveiling. The painter is Barbora Kysilkova. The thief — and the subject of the artwork in question — is Karl-Bertil Nordland, who takes one look at his likeness and descends into loud, convulsive sobs. It’s a stunning moment and also a shrewdly calculated one, and it means to reduce you to a puddle as well: A criminal has received an extraordinary measure of grace from his victim, who extends to him the consolations of forgiveness, friendship and art.
Fortunately, there is more to this picture than a tidy redemption narrative, although how much more remains a tantalizingly open question. The crime is presented at the outset: In 2015, Nordland and another man broke into an Oslo art gallery and stole two of Kysilkova’s large oil paintings, “Chloe & Emma” and “Swan Song.” Authorities never recovered the missing canvases, which were valued at about 20,000 euros, but the culprits were identified in surveillance footage and Nordland was arrested. Sensing a compelling tale in the works, the director Benjamin Ree began filming around the time Kysilkova took the remarkable step of going to the courthouse, introducing herself to Nordland and asking if she could paint him.
And so she did, envisioning him first as an elegant gentleman holding a glass of red wine. It’s this painting that makes Nordland weep when he sees it, perhaps because it suggests a version of himself he once yearned to be. Soon that idealized veneer will be stripped away; a later painting reveals Nordland’s tougher but more vulnerable self, his muscular chest covered with tattoos (including one that reads “Snitchers Are a Dying Breed”). The paintings are remarkable. Even more remarkable is the speed and intensity of the friendship that Kysilkova strikes up with Nordland, whose past struggles with drug addiction and gang activity belie his sensitive soul. Asked why he stole her paintings, he replies simply: “They were beautiful.”
Apart from one scene in which Kysilkova urgently presses Nordland about what might have happened to her paintings (he claims not to remember, having stolen them in a heroin-induced haze), we never see her lash out or fully express her anguish at what she’s lost. Her anger, if any, seems to have been eclipsed by her compassion — and not just her compassion but her fascination, the sense that she may have discovered a promising new muse. You could describe “The Painter and the Thief,” quite accurately, as a portrait of an uncommonly beautiful friendship. You could also describe it as the story of a debt being repaid.
Either way, like any good artist, Ree means to complicate our immediate perceptions and assumptions of both his subjects. Nordland’s history of crime and substance abuse turns out to be rooted in childhood neglect, but his various passions and achievements — among them an excellent education, a talent for mentorship and a love for traditional carpentry — don’t always fit an obvious profile. Kysilkova, for her part, draws on reserves of love and empathy that she has sometimes been denied herself: Although now happily married, she still bears the wounds of an abusive earlier relationship.
Nordland has a girlfriend himself, though the possibility of any romantic feeling between him and Kysilkova is one of many things left either coyly or tactfully unaddressed. Ree toggles between their perspectives, sometimes using their voiceover narration to sketch in quick, impressionist details. The course of their relationship does not always run smooth, which works to the movie’s dramatic benefit at times and proves narratively inconvenient at others. When Nordland vanishes from Kysilkova’s life for a lengthy stretch, this rough-edged love story morphs into a bruising tale of regret and recovery, with a dash of heist thriller for good measure.
Through it all, Ree undermines our understanding of the emotional and artistic transaction that his subjects are conducting. Is Kysilkova herself a kind of thief, exploiting and aestheticizing another person’s suffering? If so, surely Nordland is too intelligent not to be aware of it — and does it even matter, given the obvious depth of their mutual affection? Ree seems to invite questions about his own motivations as he plays with the film’s perspective and chronology, springing surprises at key moments and continually reframing his subjects in ways that will hold them up to the most surprising and unpredictable light.
“The Painter and the Thief,” in other words, keeps drawing attention to its own manipulations. It has a strikingly beautiful surface; Ree and Kristoffer Kumar’s camerawork finds a rich digital luster in even the most workaday interiors, from the atelier where Kysilkova paints to the hospital room where Nordland ends up after a bad accident. The director appears to have secured extraordinary access to both subjects; there are moments so intimate and unguarded that you may briefly dissociate and question what you’re watching — a documentary, or its carefully scripted and acted narrative counterpart.
The result is a movie that feels both truthful and evasive, deeply moving and a little perplexing. Which may, of course, be entirely by design. Ree clearly means for us to think about what we’re watching and to remind us of the wonders and the limitations of any medium — a painting, a documentary film — that purports to represent some version of the truth. But his tricky methods don’t always serve his admirable purposes. As this movie’s cathartic final unveiling confirms, Kysilkova and Nordland’s bond is a thing of irreducible and finally undeniable beauty. It might have been even plainer to see within a less fussy frame.
‘The Painter and the Thief’
(In English and Norwegian with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Available May 20 via virtual cinemas including Laemmle and other theater websites; also on Hulu and VOD
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