Review | Doco explores unlikely bond between ‘The Painter and the Thief’

The Painter and the Thief | Dir: Benjamin Ree | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Despite its success at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I found myself questioning whether this Norwegian film was a documentary, even though it opens with the 2015 security footage at Oslo’s Gallery Nobel showing two men breaking in and stealing two paintings by Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova just after the opening.

It turns out that a friend of Barbora’s had filmed her painting her wonderful paintings as well as the opening of her exhibition at the art gallery. It was not until a newspaper article about the struggling painter offering to paint the portrait of the person who stole her masterpiece that director Benjamin Ree began filming and using the archival footage to piece together the remarkable story.

The film reconstructs the district court scene where Barbora offers to paint the career criminal Karl-Bertil Norland from the courtroom audio tapes. Barbora confesses that she did this partly so she might find out more about where her paintings may have ended up, even though drug-addicted Karl-Bertil has no memory of the robbery, and partly because she is fascinated by his sadness.

Rees was intending to make a short 10 minute documentary for an online news network in Norway but the project grew to feature length as the improbable and complicated relationship between the two lost souls develops after Karl-Bertil had served time in prison for the theft. When Karl-Bertil almost loses his life in a car crash, Barbora becomes even closer to her subject.

Then the tables turn and the documentary re-winds to show the events from Karl-Bertil’s point of view over the three years of filming, mainly by director Rees. Karl-Bertil tells Barbora that she sees him very well, but she forgets that he sees her too. This is where, rather than seeing the contrasts in their lives, the viewer begins to see the similarities.

By this stage Karl-Bertil has a girlfriend who is encouraging him to go into drug rehabilitation and fractures are showing in Barbora’s relationship with her understanding boyfriend and they are undergoing counseling. It is a fascinating documentary about two people fighting with the darkness in their lives.

Lezly Herbert

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