On April 25, 2015, two paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova were stolen from the Galleri Nobel art gallery in Oslo, where they were displayed. Thanks to security footage the two culprits were quickly identified and arrested, but authorities were unable to discover the whereabouts of the missing paintings.
Hoping to learn what happened to her work, Kysilkova decided to approach one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, during his criminal hearing. She asked if they can meet and have a conversation, and perhaps he’d allow her to paint his portrait?
Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree initially approached Kysilkova with an idea to shoot a short film about the stolen art. The film he ended up making transformed into something else entirely as he traced Kysilkova and Nordland’s ever-evolving relationship over the course of three years.
Similarly, Ree’s resulting documentary “The Painter and the Thief,” initially seems to be a straightforward chronicling of this odd-couple friendship, but gradually becomes a touching portrait of two lost and lonely souls in search of compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.
Despite Nordland’s intimidating appearance — he has “Honor Among Thieves” tattooed on his neck and the words “Snitchers Are a Dying Breed” inked across his chest — he’s a sensitive soul. A struggling drug addict who suffered abuse in his childhood and has a history bouncing in and out of prison, he’s not someone with much in the way of expectations for the people in his life.
As much as Kysilkova continues to press him for details of the fateful night when he stole her paintings, he claims his memory is too murky to have any recollection of where they may have ended up. But she’s disarmed when he says why he took the artwork in the first place: “Because they were beautiful.”
The pair grow closer as they open up to one another, but their relationship is altered when Nordland suffers a serious accident. From there, the film shifts to recount the previous year’s events from his perspective. “She sees me well, but she forgets I can see her too,” he says. What he observes reveals a bit more about the pain and trauma Kysilkova carries with her, which she funnels into inspiration for her art.
Ree walks a delicate line, working to create a sense of intimacy with his subjects. His camera captures some incredible moments, as when Kysilkova reveals her first portrait to Nordland and he breaks down suddenly into anguished, uncontrollable sobs. The film examines the relationship between artist and muse, considering what each of these individuals truly give to (and in turn take from) each other. There’s an exchange taking place — one in which the filmmaker himself also partakes.
That awareness adds an intriguing additional layer to the film, and as we learn more about both Kysilkova and Nordland, we’re compelled to reassess the roles we’ve initially assigned to them.
Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (before the film industry came to a screeching halt), “The Painter and the Thief” is now available at virtual cinemas around the country, including The Little Theatre. The film feels ideal for quarantine viewing: it’s a tender, small-scale story about human connection and friendship, coming at a time when we’re severely lacking those tangible experiences.
A special one-night, nationwide, online screening will be held on Friday, May 22, at 8 p.m., followed by a live streamed Q&A with the film’s subjects Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, along with director Benjamin Ree. Tickets to the event are $12, and 50 percent of revenue from each ticket sold will be shared with The Little Theatre. Details can be found at joinmovienight.com.
Following that screening, the film will continue to be available through The Virtual Little.
“The Painter and the Thief”(NR), directed by Benjamin Ree, is now playing at The Virtual Little.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be sent to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY’s arts & entertainment editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.