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film review

The Painter and the Thief chronicles the relationship between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and thief Karl-Bertil Nordland.Handout

  • The Painter and the Thief
  • Directed by Benjamin Ree
  • Classification PG; 102 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Painter and the Thief might be the best documentary of the year, if it could be fairly called a documentary. Instead, director Benjamin Ree’s film is more a mesmerizing, and potentially transgressive, investigation into just how far the documentary form can be torn apart and put back together – and whether the audience should accept such a wild reconfiguration.

Initially, it seems that Ree has made a tick-tock docu-thriller, chronicling the real-life theft of two works by Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo art gallery. But quickly, Ree finds another layer to the story, with the curious and sympathetic Kysilkova seeking out one of the thieves, struggling drug addict Karl-Bertil Nordland, to hear how he fell into a life of crime and to find out where her since-fenced work might be hiding.

Quickly, Kysilkova finds a muse in her new rough-edged friend, while he finds someone whose past is just as full of pain and trauma as his own. But that is not even half the story. As the relationship between Kysilkova and Nordland develops and twists itself into something unexpected and even dangerous, Ree flips his story, and timeline, several times over. The result is not only a portrait of a criminal but also one of an artist who either willfully transgresses boundaries or is too self-absorbed to notice when she’s crossing them.

Yet in chronicling the unlikely pair, Ree asks us to question his own methods and motives. Obvious facts of the original theft are elided – Nordland’s accomplice is nowhere to be found on-screen; does either Kysilkova or Ree expect a man who has a chest tattoo with the words “Snitchers Are a Dying Breed” to give up any case information? – and it is difficult to believe that much of what transpires in the second half of the film would have gone down if Ree’s cameras weren’t there, egging it all on.

But whether The Painter and the Thief holds up when pressed against the hard definition of cinema-verite filmmaking – which it never purports itself to practice – doesn’t matter, in the end. This is sleight-of-hand cinema, a beguiling magic trick of character, narrative and style.

The Painter and the Thief is available digitally on-demand starting May 22

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