‘The Painter and the Thief’ a Moving Portrait of Friendship and Beauty (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: A-

There is a moment, early on in the new documentary, The Painter and the Thief, where the titular painter, Barbora Kysilkova, asks Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the men involved in the brazen theft of two of her works being displayed in a gallery, why he did it. His answer is simple. “I thought it was beautiful.”

The simplicity of his matter of fact response belies a truism that has pushed art forward through the centuries and into the complex machinations of today’s art industry. Art is many things. It speaks to and for us; it gives voice to the unspeakable, inspires us all to find our own voices. It encourages us, supports us, challenges us, defines and names us. It does all of this, but so too must it be beautiful.

Beauty, of course, is an abstract. Show me ten people and I’ll show you ten different definitions of beauty. But to sell art, to make a living as an artist, someone must find your work beautiful. That’s the sweet spot, the key. Without the draw of beauty, a work is only so much color applied to canvas. It is the abstractness of beauty that allows for art to do everything else that art does.

At its core, The Painter and the Thief is a film about the search for beauty, the search for that which draws and compels us towards new understandings not just of ourselves but of the world around us. Director Benjamin Ree, like so many documentarians before him, wasn’t sure what he had when he first started following the story of Kysilkova, and in truth there was no way to know.

There was simply no way to guess that the artist would approach the tattooed gang member who stole her painting and ask if they could talk. Nor was there any way to know that this moment, captured on a voice recording in a Norwegian courtroom, would result in a remarkable friendship. And yet, like a lot of art itself, so much depends on time and place and circumstance. So much depends on having the right eye there to capture it.

As a result, Ree’s film becomes art itself, one that forms a recursive dance that finds beauty amidst ugly realities and pain and shows us the depths of the human spirit and the bonds of forgiveness. It feels almost preordained, that Kysilkova and Nordland would meet like this. They are each drawn to each other over their shared aesthetic but their bond quickly becomes so much deeper than either could foresee.

Theirs, like most great friendships, becomes a friendship of near radical emotional vulnerability. And so we learn both Nordland’s traumatic history that led him to a life of crime and Kysilkova’s struggles with abusive relationships while trying to get her foot in the highly competitive world of art. In their own ways they are each broken, but the jagged edges of their combined experiences somehow fit near perfectly, forming a new image out of the jigsaw puzzles of their lives.

The more we learn about the subjects of Ree’s documentary, the deeper the sense that, in alternate worlds, the two could have easily switched places. We don’t often like to consider it but most of us are only one or two major mistakes away from personal and spiritual disaster. Humans don’t need much to push them to the limits of society and to fall into the abyss of drug abuse and crime. Nordland, we learn, is an accomplished carpenter who spent much of his time in his younger days helping troubled youth find their place in society and leave for school.

And yet, here he is now, drug addicted, a gang member, no real prospects.

As an artist, Kysilkova has demons of her own. While seemingly poised for success, she struggles to make money to pay for her studio and her supplies, she struggles to find space to show and sell her art, and she struggles to process the past traumas that haunt her life and work. Squint your eyes, and it isn’t difficult to see how easy it might be for her to fall into the kind of life in which her friend and subject found himself.

Ree assembles his documentary, which ultimately becomes about so much more than just a bizarre friendship forged in strange circumstances, with little regard to chronology. Latter day scenes often occur with context added only later, creating an uneasy tension that moves through The Painter and the Thief. The deeper we get into the story, the more off putting we sometimes feel, as if the combined tragedy of Kysilkova’s and Nordland’s lives will eventually become the impetus of a new, perhaps great tragedy.

Through it all, however, we find ourselves coming back to the question of beauty and what it means. No great conclusions are reached that we don’t already know. But Ree and his subjects ultimately emphasize that beauty is forged in often the unlikeliest of places. Within the ugliness of life lurks the greatest capacity to see and to recognize that which is beautiful. And so perhaps there’s something to Nordland’s simplistic, criminal musing seen in act one. Perhaps when we encounter something we perceive as beautiful—be it an experience, a human connection, or a painting on the wall—the best thing we can do is to grab it, to hold it, and to never let it go.

The Painter and the Thief is now available on various on demand platforms.

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