‘The Painter and the Thief’

A lovely documentary about art, crime, redemption, and friendship

I saw The Painter and the Thief movie. In this lovely documentary, now streaming on Hulu, a female Czech painter living in Norway suffers a terrible career blow when a couple of junkies steal her two masterpieces from a gallery opening. This painter, Barbora Kysilkova, is a remarkably empathetic and curious person. When the police catch one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, she approaches him in court and immediately falls in love with him, platonically. They become best friends and he inspires her to make a series of amazing paintings.


THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Benjamin Ree Miller
Running time: 107 min.


 

The Painter and the Thief is a remarkable documentary in many ways. Director Benjamin Ree thought he was going to make a fun true-crime film about a wacky art heist. Instead, he’s crafted a moving story of friendship between two very damaged but ultimately compassionate people. It’s about a loving but nonsexual male-female relationship, which is refreshing to see. The Painter and The Thief is also, by virtue of its protagonist, one of the better depictions of the artistic process ever put to film. It also presents a realistic but ultimately hopeful picture of addiction and recovery. It never judges Nordland, even though he’s a terrifying shit when he’s on drugs.

The true-crime mystery at the center keeps the film from overly bogging down. We want to know what happened to the paintings. That plot point always lurks in the background, even when most of the scenes are two broken people talking about their problems in a hospital. But it’s about a lot of other things as well. Even in a country like Norway, with its mammoth safety net, Kysilkova struggles mightily to pay her bills. She suffers for her art. Ree also has crafted, perhaps unwittingly, a portrait of the Norwegian penal system. When Nordland goes upriver for doing something stupid, he lands in something akin to a minimum-security summer camp, which has as many amenities as a church retreat. But it also thoroughly and effectively rehabilitates him.

Ree has crafted The Painter and the Thief in a verité style. The narrative jumps around in time, but always in service to the plot. He does all voiceovers in the form of reading letters and emails. There are no talking heads to explain to us what’s going on. And he has a wonderfully patient ability to allow his camera to linger, as in the film’s most memorable scene, where Nordland beholds his portrait for the first time. It both breaks him open and heals him. The Painter and the Thief will do the same to you. Highly recommended, and not as depressing as it might seem at the beginning.

This concludes my review of The Painter and The Thief movie.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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