The Painter and the Thief review: A fascinating and surprising art heist doc
James R | On 30, Oct 2020
Director: Benjamin Ree
Cast: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland
The Galleri Nobel. Oslo. 2015. Two men break in and make off with two paintings – including The Swan Song by Barbora Kysilkova. So begins The Painter and the Thief, but what sounds like the makings of a mystery thriller or an art heist drama turns out to be something entirely more surprising and gripping.
Benjamin Ree’s documentary swiftly moves on from the opening theft to the court trial that followed without any concern for hiding the identity of the thief: Karl-Bertil Nordland. Struggling with drug addiction, he was too high to remember exactly what happened. Why did he do it? “They were beautiful,” he tells the court. That unexpected answer is Ree’s jumping off point, and he spends the next 90 minutes investigating not the crime itself but the people drawn together by it.
The bizarre bond between painter and robber only gets more complicated as Barbora comes up with a surprising way for Nordland to pay back his crime: she asks him to pose for a painting. And what ensues is a strange mix of community service, creative expression and experimental therapy.
It soon becomes clear that they’re as mixed up as each other, with Barbora grappling with her own obsessive behaviour and Nordland still capable of sabotaging his own rehabilitation. But the more time they spend with each other, the closer they seem to become, and there’s almost a romantic intensity to their mutual support, fascination and respect – Nordland’s reaction to seeing the painting that Barbora creates of him is hugely affecting.
Ree’s meticulously assembled piece is fittingly complex in its own right, weaving back and forth through events to see both sides of a knotted canvas. But while the plotting is spattered with its own twists and turns, from Barbora’s concerned and controlling husband to her enduring hope of tracking down her missing Swan Song, Ree’s real success is the access and trust he secures with his subjects – a unique portrait of an unlikely duo that steals an hour and a half of your time before you’ve even noticed.