The Painter and the Thief review – an exultant documentary feature drawn to him



The Painter and the Thief captures moments of love, redemption, hope, and ultimately, the exultant power of forgiveness.

There are moments of Benjamin Ree’s new documentary, The Painter and the Thief, that begins to overwhelm you almost immediately with its raw emotion. The film has an organic quality that is fueled by one woman’s remarkable humanity for her fellow human being. There is a singular moment, one that stands tall among the rest, when a tough, stoic exterior is stripped away, and an unfiltered reaction comes pouring out, which is nothing short of exultant.

Director Benjamin Ree’s documentary chronicles the initial robbery of Oslo-based Czechoslovakian artist Barbora Kysilkova’s paintings — “Swan Song” andChloe & Emma”. Initially, Kysilkova is heartbroken, but during the court proceedings after catching the thief who stole her work, instead of berating him, she asks if she can paint him. The man, Karl Bertil-Nordland, a former extreme athlete, has fallen into a downward spiral of substance abuse, and Kysilkova is uncontrollably drawn to him. The unlikely what you could call friendship or attraction is chronicled from there.

The Painter and the Thief is a mesmerizing documentary feature that has much more to do with mental health than the mystery of what happened to the paintings after Bertil-Nordland left with them. Filmed over three years, you can see an actual friendship these two have with each other, which is unusual, and feels organic. There is real therapy at play here, and the camera exposes, just like Kysilkova’s paintings of her thief, who people really are in the moment. He is not as bad as he seems, nor is she as altruistic as she plays it — after all, she wants her paintings back and needs the money. Either way, that perfect moment of initially putting aside her own needs for someone else is something the world is in desperate need of and remains in short supply.

While Ree’s lens captures scenes honestly, the last act of his feature has the opposite effect. My complaint with many documentaries is that some will recreate scenes with actors or the real subjects begin to “play” for the camera — to a point that happens here. For instance, (spoiler) when one of the paintings miraculously turns up, it feels staged. The end of the film also has a quality of both subjects being forced to talk again after a long absence as a way to put a sweet little bow on the film’s story.

It does prevent the documentary from becoming a perfect one, even though you can argue great art has its flaws. Those are not enough to downgrade the experience completely and it does capture the unusual unspoken attraction these two have (think of any romantic drama or comedy with the girl going for the bad-boy, or to a greater extent, in Capote where Truman has a connection with his subject, Perry Smith) of connected broken souls.

As I said above, what separates The Painter and the Thief from many other nonfiction films is its humanity; the ability to change someone’s life for the better instead of throwing away the key. The film is jubilant in the way it captures moments of endearing love, moving redemption, robust hope, and ultimately the striking power of joyous forgiveness — let it overwhelm you.

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M.N. Miller

M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.

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