Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s new documentary is a small story with a big heart, which follows artist Barbora Kysilkova as she forms a fascinating friendship with Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the thieves who stole her paintings.
Barbora first acts in her own self-interest, keen to understand why Karl-Bertil did what he did and understandably desperate to recover her artwork. It soon becomes apparent that Karl-Bertil has serious drug issues and genuinely doesn’t remember what he did with the paintings, but the pair discover a surprise connection and continue to meet. A strong and loyal friendship is soon formed, as Barbora tries to help Karl-Bertil rediscover himself and get over his addiction.
Ree is a man who knows how to tell a story; the continuity in The Painter and the Thief is expertly crafted, following a riveting structure with genuine surprises and conflicts, as we get to know Barbora and Karl-Bertil both together and independently of one another.
They are both very likeable people; Barbora, in her selfless approach to a man who so wronged her, and Karl-Bertil, a survivor of a difficult upbringing who seems to have lost sight of himself. His reaction to Barbora’s first painting of him is devastating to watch, and one of the most memorable cinematic moments of this year. He’s not used to being treated this way, and it’s in that moment that he realises it’s exactly what he needs.
While Barbora’s influence over him is at the forefront of the picture, the effect he has on her is far more subtle and doesn’t necessarily become clear until the final act. They are both kind but flawed individuals who meet each other at a crucial stage in their lives and offer the support that they need. It’s almost poetic, and by the final scene of the film (a happy accident that brings the story full circle in a special way), both are vastly different people, having grown in ways that they couldn’t have without their friend.
The Painter and the Thief is a classic ‘life is stranger than fiction’ tale about the unlikeliest of bonds formed between two polar opposites; one that leads to genuine healing and personal growth. It’s a meaningful tale of the power of human kindness, and a study of what we might discover if we open ourselves up to others in the same way. It’s exactly the kind of warm, hopeful film that 2020 needs.
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