As film premises go, the one for The Painter and the Thief is a doozy: an artist seeks out and befriends the man who stole her paintings. If it weren’t a documentary—at times a startlingly blunt, raw one—it wouldn’t be believable. But filmmaker Benjamin Ree (Magnus) all but disappears behind the camera, allowing audiences to get to know Barbora Kysilkova (the painter) and Karl Bertil-Nordland (the thief) as they get to know each other and forge a bond that’s as unexpected as it is oddly understandable.
As the film begins, we see what Barbora has seen probably a thousand times: grainy security footage of two men leaving a gallery in Oslo with two of her most valuable canvases under their arms. With the help of the authorities, the men who committed the crime are found, arrested and tried. Perhaps seeking a bit of closure, and perhaps intrigued by the thieves’s bold actions, Barbora attends Karl’s trial and, in the first of many twists and turns in this unique story, she decides to approach him during a quiet moment in the proceedings. Audio from the courtroom over sketches of the day’s events offer unusual access into the moment a relationship is born; these two are only connected by this seemingly random criminal act, until one takes the smallest step towards the other and a bridge is crossed into some new version of their ties to each other.
The first half of The Painter and The Thief plays like a true-crime mystery intertwined with a deeply personal drama. Ree plays with perspectives and timelines to clue us into both the sequence of events and Barbora’s and Karl’s backgrounds and motivations. Each narrative track is important as the film progresses. Factually, a viewer would be completely lost without some sense of a timeline to ground this bizarre human interest story. And as we get to know both the artist and the criminal better, we learn quickly that neither—like any of us—is as easily summed up in the single label their assigned.
Karl insists he doesn’t remember anything about the crime, including where the paintings were stashed after the fact. A drug addict with a checkered past, he was too high that day to retain those key details. Barbora, meanwhile, is struggling to bounce back from the violation on her work, finding it hard to get another gallery show set up and falling several months short on rent at her studio. When she asks Karl to sit for a portrait, it’s slightly cringe-worthy—what is she doing allowing this man into her creative space like this? The intimacy and vulnerability is practically palpable; Karl is as confused as anyone, but seems to recognize something in Barbora that convinces him she’s not looking to take advantage of him or exploit the curious beginnings of their friendship.
At about the halfway mark, there’s a bit of a sense of conclusion; Ree has explained the events on the day of the crime and we know quite a bit about Karl and Barbora, both individually and together. It’s all more than enough to make for an interesting story, the sort of “Can you believe it?” rubber-necking we’ve become accustomed to in the era of “Serial” (the phenom podcast that launched a thousand more) and Tiger King (Netflix’s not great but endlessly watchable docuseries). So it’s a bit of a surprise when Ree decides to keep going, to stay with Karl, Barbora and their small circle (they’re both dating other people; far as we see on camera, they never become romantically involved) and essentially see what happens.
Filmmaker knows best, though, because the latter half of the film is ultimately its most poignant. With the housekeeping out of the way, Ree shifts his focus to how both of these damaged souls manage the curveballs life throws them and, more importantly to our premise, how their friendship becomes a central element in weathering it all. Karl and Barbora see each other in ways neither is quite used to—when we start to believe the stories we tell about ourselves, it’s jarring (and invigorating) when someone comes along to remind you that you’re something else entirely. Their connection isn’t entirely stable, and certainly a psychologist or anyone who’s seen one regularly can see that it’s not entirely healthy, either. But these bumps along the way only intensify their bond, each of them turning up for each other when no one else is anywhere to be found.
The Painter and the Thief is that rare documentary that not only chronicles an exceptional story but does it with a masterful grasp of the craft. Ree deftly navigates a profoundly complicated personal relationship, begun under the oddest of circumstances, to reveal the power of connection, the influence of subject on artist (and vice-versa) and the potential within each of us—with a little help from a friend—to grow, change and become more than we ever believed we could.