The Painter and The Thief (2020) ****

October 20th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Benjamin Ree; Documentary with Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene; Norway 2020, 102 min.

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree follows his Sundance award-winning portrait of chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a documentary of a very different kind showing how bitter conflict can be resolved through art.

It all starts in 2015, when small time criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland and an unnamed accomplice stole two large paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo gallery. They were caught on CCTV, escaping with the rolled up canvases. Nordland was arrested and charged for the theft of ‘Swansong’ and ‘Chloe & Emma’, worth about 20,000 Euro. Particularly striking was the way the thieves took their time – removing a hundred or so nails to liberate the artworks – a task which would take over an hour. In court, Kysilkova asked Nordland why he stole her paintings, to which he answered simply “because they are beautiful”. He claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of a four-day heroin trance. Kysilkova, a striking woman in her mid-thirties, asked to paint Nordland in ‘retribution’ for his crime.

This was the beginning of a close relationship of ‘Seelenverwandschaft’, a form of congenial understanding of two seemingly very different people. We learn about Nordland’s fight against drug dependency as a result of his mother leaving with his two siblings, leaving him to contend with an emotionally cold father. Becoming a respected carpenter he then feel prey to drugs abuse and prison. His upper body is heavily tattooed, with an inscription reading “Snitchers are a dying Breed”. When Nordland saw his portrait he cried like a baby, so overwhelmed that somebody saw him worthy of a portrait. “I do not deserve to be happy”. Barbora also painted him with his girlfriend, who left him after he bought heroin on the way to Rehab.

Nordland and Barbora are polar opposites yet their relationship develops against the odds, clearly brought to each other by some sort of soul connection through which they also learn a great deal about themselves – including their respective inherent attraction to dangerous habits. They are like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by the adult world to fight for themselves in a threatening environment. The dark wood is a good symbol for a world both don’t fully understand.

Sentenced to one year in Halden prison, Nordland distance from Barbora’s feels somehow therapeutic for them both. But the re-discovery of one of her paintings ‘Swansong’, (hidden by Nordland’s partner in crime in an underground labyrinth) fills her with ecstatic happiness.

Rees and fellow DoP Kristoffer Kumar produces images of ethereal beauty, particularly in the shots showing Barbora painting in a trance-like state. What started as a ten-minute short film develops into a profound exploration of two survivors, who accidentally find a way to each other. AS

In cinemas 30 October 2020 | Winner – Sundance 2020 – Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling


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