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LFF 2020 Review: The Painter And The Thief – “A brilliant documentary”

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The Painter And The Thief is a documentary by Benjamin Ree. It follows the story of Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech artist living in Oslo. After her first exhibition, two of her most valuable paintings are stolen. The two thieves are captured and prosecuted. The paintings weren’t recovered. Barbora makes contact with one of the thieves, Karl Bertil-Nordland, a career criminal who agrees to meet with Barbora and sit for her as she paints him. A strong bond and friendship forms between the two and the film charts and examines not only the redemptive core of their friendship, the destructive nature of addiction but also the role art plays in their relationship.

At first, Barbora appears to be the one who is in control. She is the artist who was the victim, reaching out to the man who stole from her. Karl is initially guarded as she attempts to gain his trust for him to open up to her, so she can truly capture him in her painting. The more Karl talks about his hazy memories of the theft, the more we realise his life has been out of control, his actions guided only by his need to obtain his next hit. He tells her how he can’t even remember what he did with the painting as he’d been up for four days in a row, high on drugs and acting on impulse. But there is a side to Karl that wants to be open to Barbora and her artistic process. Paradoxically, he tells her that the reason she became a victim of his crime was that he remembered passing by her paintings hung in the gallery window and how much he liked them. When Barbora reveals to Karl her first painting of him, he breaks down and sobs. It is the first time in years that anybody has looked beyond his addictions and crimes, revealing the pain of the man inside. The man in Barbora’s painting is someone Karl is not yet prepared to give up on.

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Benjamin Ree’s camera doesn’t just show us Barbora’s perspective. He spends an equal amount of time showing us Karl’s point of view. Karl is not just Barbora’s subject or project, but a person who, for all of his flaws and vulnerabilities is someone who has the potential to also support and nurture another. At one point he tells us that she forgets that he can also see her. His path so far may have been one of chaos and self-destruction that started with an unhappy childhood but with someone like Barbora and her art in his life, he can tackle his inner demons and be there for others.

Ree does not flinch away from Karl’s flaws as we watch him succumb to his addictions and spiral back into self-destructive patterns of behaviour, sabotaging relationships and placing himself in harm’s way.

Nor does Ree turn away from Barbora’s flaws and self-destructive tendencies. Her bond with Karl places her own relationship with her loving partner under a great deal of strain and her art becomes not only a refuge and sounding board for frustrations and upset, but it also becomes an addiction in itself, a place for her to hide away from the harsh realities of life. Ree judges neither Barbora nor Karl and their bond is at times both nurturing and potentially harmful.

The Painter And The Thief is a brilliant documentary that examines not only the destructive nature of addiction but also the redemptive power of art and the catalyst art can be in helping to forge a powerful bond and relationship between two people from very different backgrounds.

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