‘The Painter and the Thief’ Follows an Artist as She Makes Peace With the Man Who Stole Her Art

In the documentary “The Painter and the Thief,” we get a heist, a search for stolen art, and the discovery of a tattooed criminal. But this is real life, not a work of fiction, so instead of delivering some kind of recycled resolution, director Benjamin Ree presents an astounding portrait of forgiveness and empathy. The idea of having something stolen tends to inspire immediate feelings of anger and a demand for retribution. Artist Barbora Kysilkova decided instead to embrace the thief.

When Kysilkova, a native of the Czech Republic, was able to display her paintings at the Galleri Nobel in Oslo, Norway, she was basking understandably in the sweet taste of success. Then in broad daylight two individuals broke into the gallery and took two of Kysilkova’s paintings, “Swan Song” and “Chloe & Emma.” But the thieves were soon captured. At the trial Kysilkova immediately reached out to one of the arrested men, Karl-Bertil Nordland. Tattooed, with a fierce yet saddened expression, Nordland seemed like a story told endlessly before. A junkie, he claimed to have committed the act in a drugged out haze. Nordland testifies he was so stoned he has no idea what happened to the painting he took, “Chloe & Emma,” a baroque portrait of two children. But instead of demanding revenge, Kysilkova befriends Nordland and begins incorporating him into her work, producing numerous paintings of his visage. Debilitated further by his drug use, Nordland decides to seek treatment. Kysilkova endures her own struggles, such as constant rejection by galleries and the ever present demands of rent and other necessities that do not wait for the art to be finished.

Ree begins “The Painter and the Thief” with a narrative that feels out of any typical true crime documentary on television or Netflix. The premise immediately grabs with its story of strange crooks running off with an obscure artist’s work. But after Kysilkova meets Nordland in court the documentary reveals its actual heart and soul. What we get is a portrait told with unbridled intimacy. What helps make it so absorbing as that its main subjects are both such fascinating, achingly human people. Kysilkova has the dreamy air of a natural painter, preferring to live by sensation rather than conformist, practical habits. She is truly interested in Nordland as a person, visiting his home which is decorated with much artwork and listens attentively to how he describes his life and its demons. Her ego as an artist reacts in a different way than one would expect to the theft of her work. When she asks Nordland why he took the painting he can only reply, nearly with a sigh “because it was beautiful.” She seems to find the answer endearing more than anything else. There is undeniably a powerful allure to Kysilkova’s art. It is lush and dreamy, stark and nightmarish. One of the stolen paintings, “Swan Song,” portrays a swan fallen amid weeds, conveying both beauty and death.

“The Painter and the Thief” is in a way about the nature of art itself and how it can be a conduit for restless, maddeningly creative minds and experiences. As Nordland becomes Kysilkova’s muse his own life continues to spiral downwards. An accident puts him in a hospital bed and the artist immediately snaps a photo of a deep cut in his hand, later turning the image into a new painting. Rarely does she even ask about the fate of “Chloe & Emma.” In a formula Hollywood thriller this would have developed into some kind of erotic relationship meant to be “edgy,” but as chronicled in real moments by Ree’s camera, a genuine friendship forms. Some bonds form above materialism. In this case Kysilkova begins to value Nordland more than the missing artwork. There is something quite genuine about him and Kysilkova senses it. Her craft is her life. Even her boyfriend complains about her obsession with having to paint nearly every minute of the day. 

The documentary then begins to divide into two parallel portraits about the frailty of humans, and why it is we seek bonds. As Nordland goes through rehab and the gradual rebuilding of his life, Kysilkova faces economic despair and the uncertainty that always comes with trying to get your work known, and instead feeling the sting of rejection. Details are revealed that provide more insight, such as her history of abusive relationships and Nordland’s own haunting guilt about seeming a failure to his father. By the end of the documentary he is the one providing words of comfort to the painter, helping her through a crucible after having survived his own. Eventually Kysilkova will make an effort to find at least one of her paintings. The ensuing moments as she searches and finds a possible location for the missing artwork bring the documentary back to a riveting note of real-life suspense.

Documentaries do not always have to be simple distributors of information. “The Painter and the Thief” begins with a news item but becomes a human chronicle where behavior and personalities matter more than stunning revelations. Kysilkova could have spent years in anger condemning Fordland, instead she decided to become his friend and understand what shaped him into the hooded figure that boldly stole something she created. Of course one could argue that if his crime had been more horrific or traumatic maybe her reaction would be different, and justifiably so. Maybe that is also part of this documentary’s central meaning. We too often only think in material terms instead of seeking connections that could last longer in our lives than the memory of a beautiful canvas.

The Painter and the Thief” premieres May 22 on VOD.