Sometimes the worst ideas turn out to be the best. “The Painter and the Thief” is about the unlikely relationship that sprouted up when Barbora Kysilkova, an artist whose paintings were stolen from an Oslo gallery, decided to befriend Karl-Bertil Nordland, the heroin addict who stole them. A naïve, foolhardy notion? Certainly. Yet as director Benjamin Ree films the two over several years, we’re privileged to be present at the rare good deed that does go unpunished — and that even spreads its rewards generously around.
So compelling is “The Painter and the Thief” — and ultimately so powerfully moving in its faith in human resilience — that you may not notice the illuminating ways in which Ree plays with form and viewpoint. The documentary won a special jury award for creative storytelling at the most recent Sundance Film Festival and it comes to streaming video as one of the year’s most affecting and subtly radical movie experiences.
What’s immediately clear is that both artist and thief are outsiders in different ways. Kysilkova was born and raised in the Czech Republic and arrived in Oslo after fleeing an abusive relationship in Berlin; her free-spirited, somewhat manic-depressive energy stands in often endearing contrast to the earnestness of Norwegian society and her current boyfriend, Øystein, who on the evidence of this movie is one of the most forbearing human beings on the planet.
The thief, Karl-Bertil, is a wraith and a fright, an ex-con with prison tattoos crawling up his arms and neck. Like all junkies, his personality has been replaced by his addiction. Yet not entirely: Gradually, Barbora and we come to see an intelligent, cultured, and quite funny man whose abandonment by his mother in childhood has permanently unmoored him. Early in the film, Kysilkova announces she wants to paint Karl-Bertil — her medium is oils, her style a moody photorealism — and his reaction when he sees the finished canvas is the first of the film’s many surprises.
Karl-Bertil bursts into tears. He can’t stop sobbing. The existence he has so long believed is worthless has suddenly been shown to be art. We, the audience, are literally watching the rebirth of hope in a man who had given it up for good.
Everything in “The Painter and the Thief” flows from that moment, and not all of it is easy. Under prodding from Kysilkova and his girlfriend, Ville, Karl-Bertil agrees to go into rehab — but stops to buy a fix on the way. Later there’s an auto accident that lands him in the hospital, held together by hardware. By then, there’s nowhere for him to go but up or out.
At several points in the movie, director Ree backtracks and switches narrative voices, from Barbora to Karl-Bertil and back again. Sometimes the same scenes are replayed with slightly different emphases. There’s a growing and genuine affection between the two — one that despite Øystein’s misgivings (and ours) seems in no danger of turning physical — but the question of whether the artist is using the thief, and to what ends, is raised by more than one observer. Kysilkova is revealed to be as disorganized in life as she is gifted at painting, and as the bills mount up and her money runs out, she caves in to despair. The art that may have saved Karl-Bertil may yet prove to be Barbora’s undoing.
Whose “truth” does “The Painter and the Thief” tell? Ree knows we’re all too locked into our own perspectives to be reliable narrators of our lives, and in his compassionately dispassionate camerawork and editing, he shows two troubled people waxing and waning in courage before learning to take strength from each other. One of the film’s ongoing mysteries is what happened to the two stolen paintings, since Karl-Bertil maintains he was blitzed on drugs and has no memory of the theft or its aftermath. Toward the end, the mystery’s partially solved in a way that’s both emotionally overwhelming and slightly absurd, but the greater satisfaction lies in seeing these two people step away from the documentary into the rest of their lives. The final image haunted me when I saw “The Painter and the Thief” at Sundance, and it haunts me still: an artist so moved by her subject’s resurrection — and the promise of her own — that she has no choice but to lay down her brush and step into the painting herself.
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
Directed by Benjamin Ree. Starring Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland. Available for rental on cable systems, streaming-video platforms, and “virtual screenings” via the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Dedham Community Theatre, and other area venues; check neonrated.com/films/the-painter-and-the-thief#virtual-cinema for further information. In English and Norwegian, with subtitles. 107 minutes. Unrated (As PG-13: language, drug use)