The Painter and The Thief (Benjamin Ree, 2020)
In spirit, every documentary filmmaker is like King Arthur: a leader who, according to traditional oral stories, pursues the Holy Grail. In essence, a documentary is after The Truth and by nature, The Truth likes to play hide-and-seek. If a documentary filmmaker is lucky and persistent enough, he may by chance catch a glimpse of The Truth. Then he may dig in and build up a whole picture based on that glimpse, in order to tell the story he wants others to know.
A good documentary filmmaker will follow that thread instinctively and convince that that’s The Truth, or at least a credible version of The Truth. The best, though, are the ones that allow you to judge what The Truth is and what remains hidden. In The Painter and The Thief, Benjamin Ree seems to know The Truth before the story is told, and the movie reveals itself as he dozes what he wants to tell you, and what he wants to keep secret. This is easily noted if you particularly pay attention to the editing process, as the film comes and goes not according to the facts in chronological order, but ruled by a midpoint climax and its consequences. Don’t get me wrong -- it is beautifully constructed -- but it is staged.
The story goes like this: After being enchanted by her art in a gallery window Karl-Bertil Nordland steals two of artist Barbora Kysilkova's paintings. He's caught soon afterwards by the police, but the paintings weren’t found. At his hearing, Barbora asks him to pose for her. What follows is a complicated and ever-evolving relationship, in which victim and mugger are mirrored. Their behaviour is complementary and will enhance Barbora’s creativity.
“I was fortunate because important scenes were filmed already before I began shooting. A friend of Barbora had documented her artistic life, taking photos and filming the making of the two paintings that later would be stolen, she had filmed the exhibition and was also there during the trial. So we had the actual audio recordings from the first time Barbora and Karl-Bertil met in court, and Barbora would later do the courtroom drawings of that meeting.” Ree’s statement confirms that he already knew the story he wanted to tell.
The Painter and The Thief is a fictional story based on real characters, played by the real characters.
There’s an emotional scene when Karl-Bertil finally sees the portrait that Barbora is painting of him. Karl-Bertil cries and it’s clear that all he ever wanted was to be seen. But maybe not by the camera. The camera is invasive and goes deep into Karl-Bertil’s suffering. Exploiting vulnerability on camera is a no-no rule, especially in documentaries. This should be a brief moment but Ree insists on making it the “big twist”. From that moment on, nor Karl-Bertil nor Borbora are in control of their own stories. Ree is. The movie will then explore why Borbora insists on forging a bond with Karl-Bertil. Apparently, her past life explains it.
For “the voice of reason”, Ree uses Borbora’s partner. He is the perfect character who somehow can explain Barbora’s irrational behaviour. Barbora’s driving motor is not only the morbid curiosity towards the man who stole her pictures. It’s a deep paradox. It was already in her artistic obsessions, a Tanathos’s force, which comes in the first part of the documentary. Now she is bringing the suffering into the subject of her life. She is spending money with Karl-Bertil and getting into debts. Her boyfriend asks her why she’s so involved with Karl-Bertil, as if it was a matter of reasoning.
The minute the audience understands why Borbora stopped reasoning and is behaving like that, her partner is out of the story (not out of her life). Yet this is another index that the movie is cleverly trying to manipulate your emotions.
Indeed the good intentions behind the making of the film are at the front page. The power of regeneration through art; the strength of a friendship; and the exposure of the failure of a correctional system considered one of the best in the whole planet. All of those intentions function as the glamorous make-up. The Holy Grail is still to be found. The Truth is still hidden despite the revelation at the end of the movie.
The Painter and The Thief was a Sundance winner and part of the London Film Festival highlights. You can rent for £10.00 on BFI Player.