The Painter and the Thief

In 2015, two paintings by little known Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova were stolen from Oslo’s Gallery Nobel.  Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of two men identified from surveillance video, was caught and sentenced to 75 days in prison.  Then something extraordinary happened.  Barbora asked Karl-Bertil if he would sit for a portrait and an unlikely relationship evolved between “The Painter and the Thief.”

Laura's Review: B+

Director Benjamin Ree was looking for a subject and had always been interested in the class dichotomy of art theft when he fell upon this story.  Intrigued by the artist’s desire to paint the thief, Ree began filming with no idea where his story would lead.   He was there from their first meeting at Barbora’s home, using a friend of hers’ video footage to open his film with a gallery reception and that same friend’s recorded audio of Barbora’s initial approach of Karl-Bertil in court (accompanied by court drawings made by the artist herself).  The subjects speak English throughout, the language a commonality between the Czech artist and Norwegian thief.

Both we and Barbora are surprised by our introduction to this thief, a well spoken man, his long blonde hair shaved on the sides, his arms and chest covered in tattoos, who tells us that he is a drug addict who does not remember much about the theft and has no idea where the painting is, but he took it because it was beautiful.  We will later be surprised, along with Barbora, at his possessions, Karl-Bertil’s taste elevated (at one point he informs us that just because he is a junkie doesn’t mean he should dress like one).  At the age of eighteen, he had a group of thirteen friends, eleven of whom have been murdered, committed suicide or OD'ed in the intervening years.  Barbora is drawn to this man.  Her unveiling of his portrait is incredibly emotional, Karl-Bertil breaking down in tears.  (Kysilkova works on large canvases, her realistic paintings dark.)

But this is one of those documentaries that switches directions, informing us that while everything we have seen so far is from Barbora’s point of view, that Karl-Bertil has also been telling the story and his insights into the artist surprise us once again.  Then there is Barbora’s partner, Øystein, the man she followed to Oslo from Berlin, the man she herself says saved her from an abusive relationship, who is beginning to be disturbed by her attachment to the man who stole from her.  And while there is more to Karl-Bertil than meets the eye, his destructive actions over the course of the film would cause many, if not most, to throw in the towel.

Suffice to say, the enjoyment of Ree’s film lies in turning initial impressions on their head, unfolding revelations better left for the audience to discover.  It is difficult not to conjecture how differently this story may have progressed had a camera not been recording it, but Ree’s presence is little felt despite his intimate access.  The effect these two people have on each other is profound, Karl-Bertil’s appearance even morphing from gaunt heavy metal fan to stocky hipster.  “The Painter and the Thief” is an unlikely tale of human connection where risk delivers many rewards.

Robin's Review: B