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‘The Painter and the Thief’ Draws a Poignant Image of Human Vulnerability and the Incredible Power of Art

13 July 2020

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‘The Painter and the Thief’ Draws a Poignant Image of Human Vulnerability and the Incredible Power of Art

Image credit: Shaw Organisation

Desperate for answers about the theft of her 2 paintings, a Czech artist seeks out and befriends the career criminal who stole them. After inviting her thief to sit for a portrait, the two form an improbable relationship and an inextricable bond that will forever link these lonely souls.

Director: Benjamin Ree

Year: 2020

Language: English, Norweigian

Country: Norway

Runtime: 109 minutes


The Painter and the Thief takes you on such an extraordinary journey of emotions that it’s hard to even put into words. Director Benjamin Ree manages to capture the peculiarities of human contradictions, and how that can give birth to beautiful relationships. 

Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova finds her inspiration in the most unexpected of all people, Karl-Bertil Nordland, the man who stole her paintings. He stole two of her photorealistic paintings from their frames with such care that would rival even professionals. When asked why he did so, Karl-Beril’s reason was unlike that of usual art thieves who profit off of their crimes. He took Barbora’s painting simply “because it was beautiful”. 

Image credit: Shaw Organisation

From this alone, it’s clear that Barbora and Karl-Bertil are remarkable characters. Barbora saw in Karl-Bertil what most people couldn’t, a mysterious and tortured soul who is unable to fulfill his potential. Most people are unable to look beyond Karl-Bertil’s drug addictions and criminal offences, but like the true artist she is, Barbora does. And she reaches deep into his soul in the most intimate way possible through art. 

Art has a way of tapping into our emotions that’s inexplicable. When we look at a painting, emotions are triggered in us even though we don’t exactly know why, or what those feelings even are. The Painter and the Thief puts this in the forefront, showing just how powerful art can be. 

Image credit: Shaw Organisation

The scene where Karl-Bertil first sees Barbora’s portrait of him is such a poignant moment – we see a display of such raw emotions that it’s hard not to cry. Karl-Bertil has always seen himself how others treat him – a failure. But Barbora’s portrait portrays a side of him that he himself couldn’t reach.

If I could just put my art history background to use here, Barbora’s painting depicts a kind of tranquility and stillness in Karl-Bertil. These aren’t usually the things you’d associate with Karl-Bertil’s persona, but that’s what makes the painting so moving. This is the Karl-Bertil that Barbora sees, creating this unfathomable intimacy between the artist and her subject. 

Vulnerability is integral in the relationship between the artist and her subject. Karl-Bertil, too, understands Barbora on a deeply personal level. Karl-Bertil knows of Barbora’s interests and how this informs her art, and by extension, why they’re able to strike such a peculiar partnership. 

Image credit: Shaw Organisation

Where words fail to communicate their feelings, art comes in to bridge the gap between them. This is made clear throughout the documentary, particularly when Barbora shows Karl-Bertil her portrait of him when he’s at his lowest points. It’s almost as if the portrait serves as a reminder to Karl-Bertil that someone sees beauty in him, even if it seems like all hope is lost for him.

The Painter and the Thief is one of the most moving documentaries I have seen of late, conveying the gritty realities of life in such an authentic manner. In fact, I found myself shedding tears several times. The simplicity of the documentary itself is the perfect medium through which the complexity of human relationships and psychological journey can truly be explored. 

Image credit: Shaw Organisation

Ree’s presence as the filmmaker is exactly how it should be in such an intense documentary – recessive, yet very much present. If anything, this is just another illustration of how important it is for the artist to understand their subjects in order to create something beautiful. Ree lets his subjects tell their stories authentically, allowing the rawness of their emotional growth take centre stage. 

To be sure, beautiful need not mean censoring the dark and difficult circumstances in life. Beauty is found even in the most brutal of places, and it’s the honesty that makes the beauty all the more profound. We all crave to be understood but it’s the fear of vulnerability, to reveal both good sides and bad, that holds us back. The Painter and the Thief encapsulates this exceptionally, revealing that achieving this kind of connection necessitates us to confront some ugly realities about the world and ourselves. 

The film is now available for rent on Shaw Theatres’ new virtual cinema platform, Kinolounge.

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