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You could be forgiven for thinking that The Painter and the Thief is a work of fiction. The plot sounds like something out of a Victorian novel. A junkie steals two paintings from a gallery in Oslo. The artist confronts him before the trial and says: “I’d love to make a portrait of you.” He agrees, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility. Beautiful art follows, and a strange friendship. But the thief says he doesn’t remember what happened on the day of the crime.
The Painter and the Thief is the newest documentary from Norway’s Benjamin Ree. He spent a lot of time with his subjects, Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and former carpenter and BMX champ Karl Bertil-Nordland – long enough that he can elide from one time period to another, shifting six months backward or a year ahead, the better to tease out the details of this fascinating, unpredictable story. The result is a masterpiece of editing.
We first get to know Kysilkova, and to understand Bertil-Nordland through her point of view – as an intelligent child, the product of a broken home, who fell into a gang and drugs and, eventually, prison. She reckons that with a slight push at some point in his life he could have ended up a suicide bomber, or the president of Norway.
She forgets that I can see her too.
Covered in tattoos, and dressed in a tee shirt that un-ironically says “Crime Pays,” Bertil-Nordland cuts an imposing figure. Yet when he sees the portrait Kysilkova has made of him, he is at first speechless, and then reduced to tears.
But there’s more. “She forgets that I can see her too,” he says at one point, after an accident has landed him in the hospital and the film has made one of its periodic leaps in time, back to the beginning of their time together.
We learn about the abusive relationship that caused her to flee to Norway, and we start to uncover more about her neuroses and issues. “I really feel like I’m a painting junkie,” she says, which her current boyfriend sees as a red flag and a possible indicator of other dangerous behaviour – such as befriending criminals.
You won’t guess where the movie ends up – in terms of shock value, I was reminded of the final scene of Marwencol , another great documentary set at the crossroads of art and crime. But the final third of the movie shows us painter and subject (or, if you like, victim and thief) in very different places in their lives, before a final shot that fills the screen as the credits rolls. It stays there for a long time, inviting your gaze and your interpretation. You won’t soon forget it.
The Painter and the Thief is available on demand on May 22.
4 stars out of 5
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