The Painter and the Thief Puts Empathy on Canvas

Movies Reviews Benjamin Ree
The Painter and the Thief Puts Empathy on Canvas

Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look on Kysilkova’s work.

In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree stumbled on Nordland’s case in 2015, as Norway’s court system processed the latter for nicking two of Kysilkova’s pieces from their art gallery window displays; his movie opens just before Kysilkova confronts Nordland and asks him why he stole her paintings. His answer, to her surprise and the audience’s, is simple: They were beautiful. Nordland isn’t trying to flatter her, either. He’s a thief, but an honest thief. (And he has good taste, too.)

What Kysilkova does next is make an unexpected request of Nordland with life-changing consequences. She asks to paint him. Shortly after, Ree takes his camera to her flat with Nordland, and she shows him the finished portrait, stunning in its likeness and vitality. Nordland’s sobbing provides the soundtrack for the scene. Those watching at home may consult the clock and wonder where else the film can go. The portrait is complete, Kysilkova has made her point, Nordland has paid his penance—but there’s so much more to her, and to him, than can be told, and so The Painter and the Thief takes its audience on a tour of its subjects’ respective lives outside of this incident.

Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. Ree positions Nordland as a man fully aware of his faults and shortcomings, aware of his pain and suffering, but who can’t save himself from himself regardless. Everyone likes a project, and maybe this is why Kysilkova, who clearly has a nose for buried trauma, is drawn to him. Nordland has a story to tell. Kysilkova may be the only painter out there capable of telling it. Without their full confidence, the amends don’t work, and without amends, The Painter and the Thief doesn’t work, either.

To make amends, the movie makes us understand Nordland first, Kysilkova second, because despite her personal demons—she is a survivor of domestic assault and appears to derive artistic inspiration from her suffering—she’s comparatively a ray of sunshine. Nordland’s sad upbringing and his eventual decline into addiction makes a compelling narrative. The longer the film goes, the more in-depth Nordland’s thoughts and introspection become. Ree’s thesis is elegantly straightforward: The most effective form of treatment for a broken person is kindness. Kysilkova couldn’t have predicted the profound effect her painting would have on Norland, but maybe the most telling effect of all is his ever-increasing openness. What he looks like on the outside belies who he is on the inside.

The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Nordland is so much more than the failure he’s been cast as in society at large, and that realization cuts both ways. Kysilkova provides an essential social function through her artwork, too, though society doesn’t typically value art for the ways that art can change us. Instead, art is valued as a signifier of taste, refinement and, through these, social status. The Painter and the Thief beckons audiences to think differently by telling Nordland and Kysilkova’s story, from their earliest meetings to the enigmatic and psychosexual relationship they share by the time the movie ends. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too.

Director: Benjamin Ree
Starring: Karl-Bertil Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova
Release Date: May 22, 2020 (available on Hulu)

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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