Benjamin Ree’s new documentary “The Painter and the Thief” analyzes an unlikely friendship. It is as startling as it is poignant with surprises at every turn. Without a doubt it is one of the best documentaries you are likely to see.
In 2015, two men walk into a closed Norway art gallery and steal two large scale photo-realist works.
The artist Barbora Kysilkova is understandably shaken and perplexed. There are no leads except for some blurry images of two men entering and carrying out the rolled canvases. The paintings were fastened with a hundred nails and it is estimated that the crime took over an hour to execute.
Then Kysilkova gets a call. The men have been found but the painting is lost, no clue as to the location.
At a court hearing, Kysilkova requests to speak to Bertil, one of the two thieves. She asks to meet with him. Bertil agrees.
During the meeting at her house, Kysilkova learns that Bertil does not know where the painting is at all, only that he stole it on a whim because it “looked beautiful.” Though unsure at how to follow that response, the painter asks Bertil to pose for her. “Okay,” he says giggling shyly, “I can sit.”
Over the next few sittings, Kysilkova unveils a portrait of Bertil as a sommelier. Bertil is shocked, he hyperventilates and bursts into tears. His face is that of a baby, struck with wonder and innocence. Bertil is a heroin addict. No one has cared for him. Ever. From that point on, a friendship develops that grows stronger and stronger.
Kysilkova discovers that she can confide in Bertil, things that she does not tell Øystein , her congenial boyfriend. Is she attracted to his dark side or does she want to nurture him? Both possibilities seem relevant but there are more questions than answers.
Øystein understands but is visibly concerned as well as jealous. Is his girlfriend spending money on him? The circumstances are unclear but some co-dependency does seem to be developing.
Kysilkova feels secure finding a muse in Bertil. Øystein feels left out.
Bertil goes into rehab but slips up. After a brutal breakup with a girlfriend, Bertil tells Kysilkova that he is driving into the woods on a motorcycle. Kysilkova gets a sinking feeling but the two of them say they will call later.
On the road while high, Bertil tries to steal a car and crashes into a tree, breaking his back and hip. Kysilkova brings him one of her Bertil portraits in place of a SmartTV.
This is a very affecting documentary, not least because it is surprising. At first glance, Bertil seems common but he has charm in his persistence to survive. There is a twinkle in his eye. He is scruffy, impish stubborn and vulnerable. Just what attracts Kysilkova to Bertil? Nothing is quite spelled out and that’s what makes the film so riveting.
The aforementioned crying scene is one of the most impactful moments ever seen in a documentary. Also startling is the realization that Bertil’s IV port wound resembles The Stigmata and this is precisely the moment when Øystein voices concern with more than a hint of jealousy. Nails are predominant in the film. At the start, metal nails are Bertil’s undoing, the removal of a hundred of them cemented his crime. With the wound of Stigmata, he is reborn in Kysilkova’s eyes. Through his redemption as a former criminal and carpenter, Bertil is Jesus.
“The Painter and the Thief” is a bit like Romeo and Juliet sans death as written by Patricia Highsmith. It is both a psychological thriller and a meditation on friendship, just on the cusp of love.
The final scene is an unexpected revelation, sudden and haunting.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org