There’s forgiveness, and then there’s the radical act of empathy that artist Barbora Kysilkova performs in Benjamin Ree’s moving documentary “The Painter and the Thief.” The film is now streaming on Hulu and available for rental on video-on-demand.
In 2015, two thieves broke into a gallery in Norway that was displaying Kysilkova’s works and walked off with two of her most prized paintings. (We see the robbery on surveillance cameras, more striking for how nonchalant the two thieves seem to be.)
The thieves were identified by the security footage and arrested, but the paintings were never recovered. Kysilkova went to court to see one of the criminals, a tattooed heroin addict named Karl-Bertil Nordland, for herself.
And something totally unexpected happened. She liked him. Especially when he was asked why he stole the paintings, and answered “Because they were beautiful.”
What follows is a strange friendship between victim and perpetrator, as Kysilkova takes Nordland under her wing. She has something of an ulterior motive, hoping he’ll tell her where her paintings are, but he insists he was too high at the time to remember. Eventually, they move past the crime and become close friends, so close that Kysilkova’s boyfriend gets uneasy about the bond that’s developing between them.
Ree charts this relationship in fly-on-the-wall scenes that are so intimate and unguarded that it’s hard to believe his subjects let him film them. While initially we fear that Nordland is taking advantage of Kysilkova, we soon come to see the caring, vulnerable person behind the prison tats that she sees in him. And while she at first seems almost angelic, she’s attracted to the darkness in Nordland. It's as if she has to destroy herself a little bit in order to let him create something better inside himself.
As we see the two go through hardships — he ends up back in prison, her art career stalls out and she can’t pay the rent — the support they provide each other ends up being essential for both of them to heal.
Building to a lovely twist ending, “The Painter and the Thief” is a poignant film about the hard work of connecting with another person, especially one so different from yourself, and the rewards that such a bond can provide.
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