★★★★☆

Again proving that great strength can be drawn from laying bare perceived weakness, Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief is an art heist film like no other and an arresting documentary of startling, often brutal, emotional honesty.

His 2016 debut, Magnus, which charted the rise to stardom of a chess prodigy in intimate, familial detail, explored the genius ‘otherness’ of its titular maestro and Ree’s follow-up, which was three years in the making, once more challenges the notion of judging a book by its cover or a person at face value. First greeted with the image of a blank canvas in the Oslo atelier of Prague-born artist Barbora Kysilkova, The Painter and the Thief develops to be far more than its initial premise would suggest, slowly but surely filling the screen with the unlikely friendship of two troubled, kindred spirits.

In the opening moments, a time lapse shows Barbora’s ‘Swan Song’ come to life before our eyes. It is displayed at the Nobel Gallery in Oslo and then stolen – along with a second painting – by two hooded, pixelated individuals. The latter action is shown in clinical, very clear CCTV footage from an adjacent underground garage and so at the trial of one of these men, there is no doubt as to his culpability. But why did they go to such lengths to steal the work of a relatively unknown, upcoming artist?

“Because they were beautiful,” says Karl-Bertil Nordland with childlike, hand-in-the-cookie jar contrition to Barbora when asked the question in the courtroom. “I am very sorry.” Unusually, rather than seek retribution, label Karl-Bertil a petty thief and drug addict, Barbora requests that she be allowed to paint his portrait. Not so much an eye for an eye as an act of intrigued compassion. The Painter and The Muse could easily have been a working title, as what ensues must have surprised even Ree. Both running from past traumas – a tough childhood, drug abuse and an abusive relationship respectively – Karl-Bertil and Barbora come to learn from and to some extent depend on one other, seeking solace, support and understanding with little to no judgement.

And without interjecting with question or comment at any stage, Ree’s firm handle of this very raw material is extraordinary.  The ease at which he evidently put his two subjects is similarly remarkable; his camera (with the collaboration of fellow cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar), sitting at close quarters and with extensive access throughout, captures incredible moments of heartbreak, hurt, joy and catharsis. Being present at a couple’s counselling session for Barbora and her partner Oystein (due to what he sees as her own self-destructive relationship with painting and insistence on helping Karl-Bertil) is a moment when we are forced to ask, should we really be here with them? But it is the deeply intimate, private moments at which we are present that really elevate The Painter and the Thief to something quite extraordinary.

With no recollection of the events, due to being on a four-day binge at the time of the theft, Karl-Bertil is unable to help Barbora with relocating her stolen paintings and this catalyst ironically becomes almost a side-note to the film as their kinship develops. That is, until a late appearance by his partner in crime. The real substance here lies in the confessional nature of each subject looking at, internalising and really seeing the other as a multi-faceted individual. Whether consciously, or willingly, both seek a means to excise current and former demons. The nifty, non-linear editing by Robert Stengård means that we circle back in time frequently to see scenes replayed from different points of view, with new clues and insights, in what is an even-handed, profound and respectful portrayal of the lasting ill-effects, physical and psychological, of drug addiction and domestic abuse.  

While experiencing more than one or two serious bumps in the road along the way, these fractured puzzle pieces, and contrasting opinions of nature versus nurture, experience and opportunity, coalesce to form an improbable harmony in what is a stellar documentary. The Painter and the Thief is not to be missed.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63