A novel angle on achieving notoriety in the art world is revealed in The Painter and the Thief, an engrossing Norwegian documentary born of the unlikely but resilient bond between a young female artist and a career criminal who stole two of her large canvases. Benjamin Ree’s second feature doc, after Carlsen, a widely seen 2015 portrait of Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen, thrives on its odd couple pairing of two societal misfits in turmoil brought together by real circumstances most fiction writers would reject as too contrived. Substantially in English, the film has an unusual and positive nature that will help find it homes in docu-friendly markets.
Surveillance footage reveals an audacious Oslo art gallery robbery in which two sizable canvases are spirited off the premises by two quick-working men. It doesn’t take long for the culprits to be apprehended and, while cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, one of the thieves disarmingly admits that they stole the works in question “because they were beautiful.”
This remark softens the heart of the painter, Czech émigré Barbora Kysilkova, to the point where she wants to meet the man who uttered it. As a result, Karl-Bertil Nordland becomes the film’s co-star. In most respects, the 30-something guy fits the description of a drug-addled criminal to the letter: Densely tatted up to his neck, he’s a skinhead who’s already spent eight years in prison and is so disengaged from responsibility for his acts that he claims he has no idea what happened to the paintings he stole.
Annoyingly, no information is forthcoming at this stage about the other robber, who is barely mentioned at all; presuming that his memory must be better than Karl-Bertil’s, even a scrap about the thieves’ collaboration would have been welcome. All the same, the director got wind of the case early on and contrived to begin filming by the time of the fourth real-life encounter between the artist and the prisoner.
Karl-Bertil’s account of his life of crime is arresting: Abandoned by his mother and raised — if it can be called that — by a mostly absent father, the youngster became part of a criminal group of over a dozen that, through attrition, dwindled down to just two of them, with “The Bertilizer,” as he calls himself, ending up as a junkie. Now he’s so vulnerable that he breaks down and cries in front of Barbora when she reveals that she’s managed to retrieve the paintings he stole from her.
Whereas prudent judgment would suggest avoiding further contact with a guy as comprehensively drenched in illegality as Karl-Bertil is — he proudly sports a “Crime Pays” T-shirt and scores some heroin on his way to rehab — both Barbora and the filmmaker find his wayward ways sufficiently intriguing to stick with him through thin and thinner. While recovering from a serious injury during much of the year he serves in prison, Karl-Bertil gets in great physical shape, while Barbora’s boyfriend helpfully lectures her about her self-destructive tendencies just as she’s experiencing repeated rejections from galleries everywhere.
The central dramatic dynamics don’t unfold in the way a Hollywood screenwriter would ideally arrange them, which is in most respects all to the good. Similarly beneficial is how the passage of considerable periods of time enriches the portraits of the principals; the filmmaker is with them so often — both together and separately — that we see them at highs and lows, in many different moods. The film well represents how messy life can be.
As irresponsible and self-destructive as Karl-Bertil seems to have been his entire life, one leaves the film feeling relatively optimistic about his prospects or, at least, that the rest of his life might be better than what’s come before. It’s harder to be certain what awaits Barbora, at least artistically; her vastly different artistic phases seem, at a glance, quite erratic. Certainly her larger, earlier works, like those that were stolen, are considerably more powerful than some that emerged from subsequent creative periods. It’s a doc for which one would like to see an update at some point in the future.
The film’s sustained intimacy speaks highly of the trust the subjects came to feel for the filmmaker, who is able to cut to the quick as he follows and reveals their life phases while also maintaining a filmmaker’s discreet distance. It’s an unusual look at the slipperiness of the human condition.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Director: Benjamin Ree
Producer: Ingvil Giske
Director of photography: Benjamin Ree, Kristoffer Kumar
Editor: Robert Stengard
Music: Uno Helmersson