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Sundance 2020: ‘The Painter and the Thief’ explores struggle and finding solace

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<p>“The Painter and the Thief” follows the shocking meeting and budding friendship between an artist and the thief who stole her paintings.</p>

“The Painter and the Thief” follows the shocking meeting and budding friendship between an artist and the thief who stole her paintings.

Benjamin Ree’s feature film, “The Painter and the Thief,” premiered at Sundance Film Festival Jan. 23. 

On April 20, 2015, two paintings were stolen from Galleri Nobel in Oslo, Norway. When thief Karl-Bertil Nordland was finally apprehended, he claimed to not remember why he stole the paintings, blaming instead a mixture of hard drugs that led to intense memory loss.  

Directed by Norwegian documentarian Benjamin Ree, “The Painter and the Thief” follows the shocking meeting and budding friendship between artist Barbora Kysilkova and the thief who stole her paintings. Following the trial, Kysilkova invited the thief into her home, requesting to paint him.  

Initially, Ree only intended to film the robbery, which he had discovered while reading the Norwegian news one day. Throughout the three-year filming process, he soon realized that the film would take a different turn, as the complex relationship between Kysilkova and Nordland grew. 

The film opens with a time lapse of Kysilkova painting her famous “Swan Song,” an art piece that captures her own struggles and pain from an abusive relationship. Within minutes, the audience witnesses the video recordings from the night of the robbery, blurring the faces of the supposed suspects. It only takes a moment during the trial for Kysilkova’s fascination with Nordland to begin.

Her first portrait of the thief results in a mixture of sobbing and wailing from Nordland, an almost animalistic response, shaken particularly by the fact that it was created by a woman he had wronged. Humorously marked with his “snitches are a dying breed” tattoo, Nordland is given a degree of respect and decency he had not experienced in Kysilkova’s own unwillingness to view him solely as a criminal.  

Perhaps this adamant perception of Nordland is shaped by Kysilkova’s tendency to ignoring or, at the very least, disregard, the bad in people, an attitude that likely arose from an alluded-to abusive relationship. Halfway through the film, Nordland becomes caught up in a similar crime — a car robbery — that results in a broken hip that nearly leaves him paralyzed. Again, he remembers few of his actions that led to the crime due to a drug relapse prompted by a messy breakup. In spite of this, Kysilkova expresses a similar desire to remain by his side, despite his obviously dangerous behavior and Nordland’s own unwillingness to receive help for his drug addictions. 

In many ways, this is one of the most beautiful and potentially threatening aspects of the film: Kysilkova’s ability to see beyond the criminal and see the individual. For her, Nordland was a friend who had a profound understanding of agony. She was drawn to his struggle, likely as something she saw herself in, despite their radically different responses to such suffering. Nordland was not a criminal but a man worn down by life. Simultaneously, this attitude permits three years of watching Nordland continually return to his same destructive habits in a rather vicious cycle. The film ultimately interrogates this line between self-protection against potentially dangerous influences and the humanity of pain. 

Through Nordland and Kysilkova, Ree explores the aftermath of trauma and the search for solace. For Kysilkova, art acts a means of self-preservation against emotional agony — her boyfriend at the time even claims it has become an obsessive need. For Nordland, drugs provide that same level of escapism. Each vice comes with its own attractions and dangers. 

The robbery of Kysilkova’s two paintings was a theft of a part of herself. Throughout the bulk of the film, Kysilkova follows a poorly-laid trail of clues to uncover the locations of her two paintings, particularly “Swan Song.” Her obsessiveness mirrors the addictive tendencies of Nordland, again laying the comparisons between their shared pain. 

Above all, the film complicates the society’s relationship between crime and humanity. The shocking and unique similarities between Kysilkova and Nordland, a recognition of shared trauma, bond them more deeply and more intensely than possible given the circumstances. 

The documentary embraces the humanity of each story — the painter and the thief. Each perspective is equally worthy of being heard, a theme that physically manifests in how Ree divides the film into two viewpoints. Just as Nordland states that he can see her just as she can see him, Ree ensures both characters are interrogated. Ree attempts to show the distinguishable ways in which struggle manifests, granting each a deep and human understanding. 

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