Courtesy of NEON
In April of 2015, two prominent and large oil paintings were stolen from Oslo’s Galleri Nobel, a story that never sparked viral attention. And though the paintings didn’t have a high monetary value, for young Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, they represented a long journey to rebuild a fractured self-esteem and the confidence to start the next chapter in her life. Both of the suspects were found and detained a few days later, but alas those paintings never showed up. And, in a shocking turn of events, Kysillkova decides to ask one of the culprits during the trial if she could paint them. An eye for an eye.
That’s the foundation for Benjamin Ree’s interesting and uneven new documentary about the mediums we use to heal our wounds. The filmmaker was involved with the case long before it went to court, and was on-hand to document the first meeting with Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the thieves who stole Kysilkova’s work. It’s an unhinged and raw encounter that suggests everyone’s got their own demons to deal with. For Nordland, it’s his rough childhood, and stints in prison, and for Barbora, it was a previous relationship that piled on physical and mental abuse.
But the pair's relationship stretches far wider than this first sit-down and Ree could have never imagined the two forming a solid bond that’s still going strong today. Their relationship is intriguing to watch evolve, we already got the sense that Nordland was a sensitive lad because when the painter confronts him in court and asks why he stole her work, Nordland reponds, “They were beautiful.” And when Nordland sees Kysilkova’s finished portrait of him, he almost breaks down completely, signaling a tortured soul who is finally being seen. Does it feel a tad staged? Absolutely. You almost feel like the filmmaker hoped to generate some kind of cheesy emotional response, and it partially undermines the integrity of the scene.
So is the first half of “The Painter and the Thief” before the documentary shifts gears into the thief’s point of view, bluntly changing up its painter perspective and throwing the balance of the film into limbo. To his credit, Ree doesn’t try to sugarcoat Nordland’s livelihood or the crimes he committed, but he isn’t afraid to humanize his subjects either. Though, that all changes when a terrible accident comes along half-way through Nordland’s story and Ree never locks down a clear focus of how it should be covered. The traumatic tension and mental rehabilitation that steams from a horrific incident is hardly explored, nor is the painter and the thief’s co-dependency on the other during those, admittedly, darker times.
That said, “The Painter and the Thief” does make a rally towards the end: at which time, the two come together to get their dreams and careers back on track, which, thankfully, sends you away with a stirring and emotional message of hope and resilience.
Bring on the inevitable narrative remake.
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF will be released by NEON on various digital platforms starting Friday May 22nd.