Repentance leads to relationship in The Painter and the Thief, a fascinating documentary about an unlikely friendship. But that doesn’t necessarily make for a happy ending, because relationships are hard.
The film begins with the theft of two paintings from an Oslo gallery, both by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova. The thieves are caught and in court, one of them—Karl Bertil-Nordland—tells Kysilkova, “I am very sorry.” (Director Benjamin Ree overlays courtroom sketches with actual audio from the proceedings.) And the thief means it. Later the two meet to share each other’s stories, which leads to Kysilkova painting Bertil-Nordland’s portrait. His reaction to the painting is something akin to stunned gratitude, as if someone has actually seen him for the first time. (It reminded me of the responses that Agnes Varda and JR’s photography subjects shared in Faces Places.)
The Painter and the Thief tells a remarkable story of artistic understanding, one which Rees gives a clever, two-part structure: first presenting things from Kysilkova’s perspective, then returning to many of the same events with Bertil-Nordland providing the narration. (“She forgets that I can see her too,” Bertil-Nordland says.) What we get is a fuller picture of each person. Rather than a hopeless junkie crook, he proves to have a sharp mind and quick wit. Instead of just a victim, she registers as someone with incredible strength who is nevertheless unwisely drawn to dangerous situations. Each, in meeting the other, gets something more than they bargained for.
Such a structure, of course, requires a degree of manipulation, and those seams sometimes show in The Painter and the Thief. (All documentaries are manipulations to some degree; the superior ones are better at hiding it.) When Rees returns to one night in particular—when Bertil-Nordland abandons his plans to enter a rehab facility and instead barges into Kysilkova’s studio—the moment has the air of rehearsal. A later scene, when Kysilkova is reunited with one of her paintings, also feels thin on context and too convenient. Again, it’s not that Rees, as a documentarian, is breaking any rules. He’s just not always elegant while bending them.