With all of the darkness and hate on our screens lately, I encourage you to take a break and check out this documentary portrait of goodness. When Barbora Kysilkova had her two lead paintings stolen from an Oslo gallery exhibit, her reaction was to forgive.
Attending the trial of one of the two thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, Barbora impulsively approaches him before the proceedings commence. With no fear in her voice, she laughingly asks why he stole her paintings, to which he simply replies, “Because they were beautiful.”
From this improbable start, a friendship blooms. Barbora confides in Bertil, sharing her traumatic life story with him. Bertil becomes the subject of several of Barbora’s paintings.
It’s easy to see why this film was a winner at this year’s Sundance, just before COVID-19 shut down the festival circuit. For one thing, Barbora and Bertil are fascinating people I was keen to spend time with. Barbora is a rare pure soul, childlike in her curiosity and generosity, despite subsisting on the brink of insolvency. Painting is a compulsion, her oil compositions eye-catching for their realistic portraiture posited in dark settings.
Bertil has dwelled behind bars for a quarter of his life, freely admitting to gang involvement and battles with addiction. His criminal behavior seems driven in equal parts by pathetic cries for attention and by his drug-addled states. (He has no recollection of where Barbora’s two paintings ended up, having stolen them at the end of a four-day amphetamine binge.)
In spite of this history, Bertil comes across as vulnerable and wounded rather than sociopathic. A wry sense of humor enhances his likeability; he’s given to wearing t-shirts with messages like “fat people are hard to kidnap.”
Just as important as his choice of curiosity-spurring subjects, Norwegian documentarian Benjamin Ree has structured The Painter and the Thief masterfully. After opening with a time-lapse montage of Barbora creating one of her stolen works, followed by surveillance footage of the theft, the pair’s first meeting is portrayed by an audiotape recording of their conversation overlaid with sketches by Barbora.
The body of the film then alternates between Barbora and Bertil’s perspectives, sometimes looping back to recount the same event from the other’s point of view. In voiceover, each recounts items they’ve learned about the other, from the relatively minor (favorite jellybean flavor) to major (past domestic violence). These stylistic and narrative choices deepen our empathy, as much as they show Barbora and Bertil’s compassionate friendship.
The Painter and the Thief is a mystery whodunit in a minor key, as Barbora understandably seeks to locate her missing artworks. But more importantly, it exemplifies the transformational power of kindness. Ree’s film covers about two years in his protagonists’ lives, during which both cope with significant hardship: conflict with their romantic partners, poverty, and addiction, just for starters. Neither is a perfect friend, with each disappearing from the other’s life when they could’ve used the extra support. Yet, they’re drawn to remain close, I suspect in part because, even though they’ve coped with it differently, they recognize kindred spirits in the fellowship of trauma sufferers.
In Ree’s documentary, we also bear witness to art’s life-altering potential. For Bertil, this is quite literally the case; the moment he first gazes upon one of Barbora’s completed portraits of him is one of the most affecting cinematic scenes I’ve experienced this year. But in smaller ways, isn’t this power a key reason we keep returning to the never-drying well of art, whether literature, music, painting, or cinema? In this gobstoppingly awful year, I benefited from filling myself with the goodness that Ree has captured in his film.
(The Painter and the Thief is streaming for free on Hulu or can be rented here.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )