One day in 2015, two men went into Oslo’s Galleri Nobel and stole two large photorealistic paintings by Barbora Kysilkova, a lightly-regarded Czech emigre newly-settled in Norway.
There was surveillance footage of the crime, one guy in a hoodie, the other in a stocking cap, taking the rolled up paintings to a garbage can and spiriting them away.
They didn’t get away with it. The men were identified from the CCTV video and arrested. The paintings? Not recovered.
But in the courtroom, waiting for the trial to begin, Kysilkova screwed up her courage and went over to where defendant Karl Bertil-Nordland sat and asked him the two questions that were bugging the hell out of her.
“Why did you take those two paintings,” in other words, “Why me?”
“They are very beautiful.” Everybody’s a critic, and tattoos, drug history and arrest record be damned — “Bertil” knows what he likes.
“What happened to the paintings?”
“I can’t remember.”
Kysilkova may or may not have planned what she was to say next, but “I’d love to make a portrait of you” is what comes out of her mouth.
There is audio of this exchange which underscores drawings that illustrate the unofficial, unsanctioned courtroom meeting. Documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree (“Magnus”) heard about this and thought “There’s a movie in that.”
“The Painter and the Thief” is his unusual exploration of art, the artistic temperament, empathy and compassion, a film about the human willingness to “see” and need to “be seen.”
It’s the sort of film you’d never expect to see or expect to be made in the United States. As Ree captures their out-of-courtroom meeting in a coffeehouse, and then sits in as a shirtless Bertil poses, covered in ink (“Snitchers are a Dying Breed”) as Barbora sketches him as they chat, an American might rightly wonder, “Why isn’t he in jail?” The longer the film goes on, the more we wonder.
The painter and the thief are studied and interviewed separately, and together, by Ree. We see the relationship develop, get a hint of each person’s backstory — the haunted painter with a taste for the dark side, the more-articulate-than-he-seems drug addict and petty thief.
An accident interrupts the relationship, and as a DWI is involved, we see Bertil do more time for that than he apparently did for swiping two paintings.
Bertil wonders if this “paint-your-portrait” come-on is “a trick.” Barbora’s Norwegian boyfriend is put-out and wondering if this clingy, “I don’t remember” robber isn’t more destructive to her than she realizes.
“She sees me very well,” Bertil admits (in English, and Norwegian with English subtitles). “But she forgets, I can see her, too.”
But our cynicism about this odd, overly-tolerant and weirdly compassionate pairing, and what having a camera in the room does to alter the dynamic, is given its own test when she reveals the portrait to Beril. He is shaken and moved to tears.
Things turn even more complicated as the film progresses, with the viewer never quite sure if Bertil is lying, if he sold her paintings and spent the cash on a drug binge. But Barbora is not the naive model of empathy she seems, either.
Bertil’s many injuries from his near-fatal car accident are reduced to body parts, in her field of vision.
“You have big nail holes, from the ROMANS!” She has simply GOT to paint the “stigmata” on his hands.
The film’s muted, Scandinavian tone means there won’t be any explosions. We just see the odd testy protest that she’s avoided asking him directly “What did you do with my paintings?” when he complains that she’s pestering him. And we hear the futile pleading of her “boyfriend” in front of a couples counselor about this “destructive” and “dangerous” thing she’s allowed herself to become entangled with.
What we’re left with is a fascinating glimpse of the myopic mania for “inspiration” of the artist, and a look at a culture where compassion and restitution (apparently) carry more weight than “punishment’ for the thief.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity.
Cast: Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova
Credits: Directed by Benjamin Ree. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:44