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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Artist Barbora Kysilkova has two of her painting stolen from Galleri Nobel in Oslo in 2015. Although it is only a few days before one of the thieves is tracked down, the paintings are nowhere to be found. The culprit, Karl Bertil-Nordland was four days into a drug binge and cannot recall what he has done with the art. And when asked why he stole the paintings, he replies simply; ‘Because they were beautiful.’
Documentarian Ree is already covering the trial when Kysilkova unusually asks to speak to Bertil directly. Even more unusually, she asks if she can paint him. Perhaps most bizarrely, he readily agrees. When Barbora begins to paint Bertil we get fully into the themes of interpretation and the differing ways we see and are seen. As an artist, Barbora is hugely talented and seems to see her subject far more deeply than simply as the addict and habitual criminal that most would dismiss him as. In her paintings he seems pensive; eyes averted from her gaze, which captures something more sensitive and bookish than Ree’s camera. But he has been gazing back and his reading of her is just as incisive. There are a few scenes that are so narratively perfect that their documentary authenticity comes across as slightly dubious. The most striking is the moment in which Bertil sees himself immortalised in pigment for the first time. He stares dumbfounded before dissolving into racking sobs. It is a powerful, hugely moving, and incredibly cinematic instance, but a reaction that must have been beyond Ree’s wildest dreams; a moment of raw humanity that instantly vindicates Kysilkova’s instinct as an artist, and his own as a filmmaker.
Despite a slightly limp conclusion, The Painter and the Thief is an incredibly engaging documentary that would appear insufferably trite and melodramatic were it to have sprung from the pen of a writer. It isn’t just an assured glimpse into the artistic process, but also the processes of healing, forgiveness and redemption. Tender, compassionate, and emotionally complex, it is a fine piece of art in its own right.