The story of The Painter and the Thief, the new documentary from Benjamin Ree, is almost too good to be true. And that’s before marvelling at the up close and personal footage Ree gathers for the film. How was any of this possible? Set in Norway, his two subjects, the painter Barbora Kysilkova and the thief Karl-Bertil Nordland, meet in the most unlikely way; two of her paintings are stolen and he is caught as one of the perpetrators. Instead of an angry confrontation, however, Kysilkova befriends Nordland, turning him into her muse.
But that’s just a starting point for The Painter and the Thief, a way for Kysilkova to reclaim something that was lost after her paintings disappeared. Nordland doesn’t remember where they went, so he agrees to pose as penance. The pair become friends, bonding (even if they don’t realize it) over their obsessions; he’s a drug addict, she wants only to paint. Ree’s film allows them to tell their sides of the story and then settles in to watch their lives change over the years. It may drag at times, but this bifurcated structure does make for a fascinating two-way exchange, one life helping another and vice versa. And while this may sound ridiculous—this is a record of real history, after all—it’s actually better to see the film with limited knowledge of its facts. (I’ve revealed only what’s in the promotional logline, so don’t worry.) In all, some of Ree’s choices are a bit gamey, but he’s correct to believe in his film’s near-cosmic resonance.
The Painter and the Thief benefits first from Kysilkova and Nordland’s extreme openness. When combined with Ree’s unobtrusive camera, we get an unsparing look into their lives, and their ups and downs. That openness can make for uncomfortable viewing—their tears are very real—but it also provides unlikely catharsis. Unlikelier still, for real life and documentaries, there’s actual suspense to be discovered here. We end up hoping everything and everyone will be OK.