64th BFI London Film Festival: ‘The Painter and the Thief’ Review

We’re first introduced to Karl-Bertil, the thief of this story, through grainy CCTV footage. The painter, Barbora, watches the footage in shock as she watches him and another unnamed accomplice steal two of her oil paintings from a gallery. Confused as to why anyone would be interested in stealing two paintings from an artist unknown in Norway, Barbora becomes fixated with getting to know more about these men. At the trial, Barbora can’t help but approach Karl-Bertil – needing to know more about the man who stole some of her most precious work. She offers to paint a portrait of him and from there a most unique connection blossoms. Directed by Benjamin Ree, The Painter and The Thief follows the unconventional bond between Barbora Kysilkova – a Czech painter based in Oslo – and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the man who stole two of her most prized paintings valued at 20,000 euros. Following the pair and the formation of their unlikely friendship, Ree creates an empathetic and contemplative look at the transformative powers of forgiveness and having an unflappable faith in humanity as Barbora turns Karl-Bertil into a muse of her own.

Photo © Neon

Sitting down with Karl-Bertil, Barbora presses for answers that he just doesn’t have. Insisting he was high when he stole the paintings and now unable to remember a single thing, Karl-Bertil is helpless in aiding Barbora’s urgent quest for answers. The only reasoning for his actions Karl-Bertil can give is that he stole Barbora’s paintings ‘because they were beautiful’. As the film progresses, it unravels more and more about the pair – constantly peeling back another layer of vulnerability between the two. One of the documentary’s most tender moments comes when Barbora reveals to Karl-Bertil the portrait she has painted of him, a huge, beautiful, photorealistic oil painting. ‘You did this for me?!’ he cries before breaking down sobbing in Barbora’s arms. Ree produces a continually evolving and detailed perspective of the human soul and its ability to constantly change. Not always a small-time thief, Karl-Bertil has a history in traditional carpentry, working with individuals with special needs, and even came 3rd place in the BMX European Cup in the nineties. The Painter and the Thief also delves into Karl-Bertil’s troubled upbringing with a distant mother and his siblings being taken away into care. Sketching out Karl-Bertil’s struggles with addiction and childhood abandonment, Ree moulds a non-intrusive but perceptive portrait that illustrates the link between adolescent trauma, substance abuse, and petty crime. 

Photo © Neon

The Painter and the Thief is not just a curious probing of the criminal mind or a tale of noble redemption, but also a complex look at the bonding of two self-destructive individuals. For every glance and look towards Karl-Bertil from Barbora, Karl-Bertil is staring just as hard back. ‘She forgets that I can see her too’ he remarks and it’s true, Barbora’s obsession with forming a friendship with the man that stole her most beloved paintings is just as telling as Karl-Bertil’s relationship with crime. Self-aware of the possibility of coming across as patronising or sanctimonious, The Painter and the Thief is sure to keep in mind all the moral conundrums of its premise. Ree ensures to explain that Barbora’s selfless and giving nature is not always to be praised and sometimes underpinned by a much darker drive of self-destruction. Her insistence on ‘saving’ Karl-Bertil, whether that be through redemption or constantly being by his side after a horrific car accident, is a clear indication of someone invariably throwing away all boundaries to endanger themselves emotionally.

Photo © Neon

In a couple’s therapy session, Barbora’s boyfriend Øystein describes her affinity with Karl-Bertil as someone ‘letting a child play in traffic’ as Barbora attaches herself to someone who could so easily hurt her again. Yet for Barbora – whose work can often be very dark and sometimes too much for commercial galleries – art has always had an innate connection to pain and sometimes healing. Her piece ‘Swan Song’, which Karl-Bertil helped steal, was her first piece on sale in Norway since escaping an abusive relationship and a symbol of a fresh start for Barbora. Mapping out how unbridled empathy can sometimes reign as a sign of reckless self-sabotage; The Painter and the Thief is a nuanced and stirring reflection of the intertwining of trauma and human connection. 

Inspecting how we view labels such as ‘thief’ and ‘criminal’, Ree goes beyond judgement or criticism as he reaches out an unwavering and sympathetic hand to those who get tangled up in a life of crime and those who try to help them. While flagging up the warning signs of the dangers facing those who so needlessly put the needs of others before their own, The Painter and the Thief is ultimately a hopeful and intimate tale of two lost individuals desperately seeking a friend in the world. 

Rating: image-2

Written by Abi Aherne

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