Review: The Painter and the Thief

Directed by Benjamin Ree, an artist befriends the thief who stole her paintings, she becomes his closest ally when he is severely hurt in a car crash and needs full time care, even if her paintings are not found. Starring: Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova and Øystein Stene.

Every so often a documentary comes along that immediately makes you start thinking “that can’t possibly be true” and this is definitely one of them because it’s an unbelievable story but one that holds a wonderful message. When Barbora had two of her most valuable works of art stolen, the primary concern she had was getting them back so when the thieves were caught and she went to the trial, she was hoping for answers but instead became fascinated with one of the thieves, Bertil. They slowly developed a close friendship that led her to be increasingly involved in his rather complicated life. Barbora’s forgiveness and generosity is inspirational but it’s only the beginning of a much more complex and thoughtful story.

The film may follow their friendship but it also takes the time to take a step back and show you the events from their individual perspectives to give a more rounded view and delves deeper into who they are as people. It would have been easy for most people to immediately be judgemental of Bertil, a heroin junkie with a mile long criminal record, who was so high when he stole the paintings that he has no recollection of what happened to them but because Barbora was kind and took the time to get to know him, the film is able to show how his life was even more complicated than it seemed. It’s fascinating to find out about his background, his childhood and even more so to watch how his life changed after he met Barbora, it’s an observant exploration of how strongly our early experiences can shape who we become and how much change can be achieved by positive influences and support. The film then goes a step further when it delves into Barbora’s personal life, her experiences with abuse and her relationship with her partner Øystein, which is put into turmoil by her increasing involvement in the unpredictable life of Bertil. For a film that runs only 102-minutes it manages to create such a layered and poignant study of its subjects.

The way that the raw footage is edited together is quite brilliant, not only providing those different perspectives but, along with the direction, giving it the pace and tone more typical of the mystery genre. The progression of the story continually has something to reveal that pushes it further and draws you in deeper. The only downside to this is that after a while, it starts to feel as if it’s leading you somewhere that it isn’t prepared to go, it sets up such a great amount of suspense but it slowly becomes clear that it won’t be able to satisfy that expectation. It’s as if the documentary is pushing you to question whether you’re being told the truth and that perhaps a shocking revelation is coming but it’s incidental and they perhaps should have pulled back slightly to make sure the focus stayed on their emotional journeys and development, as the film is much more about those than the theft. However, ignoring that issue, the story it does have to offer is heartfelt, gripping, emotional and poignant.

The Painter and the Thief is a fascinating exploration of how layered and complex lives can be under the surface and how bad choices affect not just yourself but the people around you. It goes from one strength to another delving into Bertil’s life, then Barbora’s, then how their presence in each other’s lives can have a positive and negative impact. It’s filled with powerful emotional moments that are incredibly touching, and a heartfelt message of how acts of forgiveness, kindness and generosity can change a life.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

Streaming via BFI Player on 8th October at London Film Festival & in cinemas 30th October

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