Combustible Celluloid
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With: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Benjamin Ree
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English, Norwegian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 05/22/2020

The Painter and the Thief (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mine Art

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Painter and the Thief is one of those documentaries that makes a viewer ask, "how could they possibly get that shot?" and "How did they even know to get that shot?"

It's such a surprising story, so meticulously laid out, that it could inspire accusations of trickery, but if such things don't bother you, and a great story, brilliantly told, is enough, then seek this one out.

It tells of Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, who escaped an abusive relationship and moved to Oslo to be with her new boyfriend.

While exhibiting her large-scale oil-based paintings in 2015, two of her canvases were stolen. The thieves, caught on camera, were quickly apprehended, but the paintings were gone.

Barbora decides to speak to one of the thieves, tattooed Karl-Bertil Nordland, and asks to paint his portrait. He agrees. He claims that he was so high during the robbery that he remembers nothing, and cannot help her pinpoint where her paintings might have gone.

Astonishingly, the two become fast friends anyway.

Later, when Karl-Bertil crashes a car, Barbora is the first one at the hospital. She even buys him food when she can't even afford her rent.

Director Benjamin Ree cleverly tells this story out of order, frequently switching back and forth in time, in an attempt to capture both points of view. In private, Karl-Bertil has a hard time trusting anyone, while Barbora begins to have relationship troubles.

Ree then finds an incredible way to end his story with an unexpected wallop.

Produced by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies, and Won't You Be My Neighbor?), The Painter and the Thief gets very close to the fly-on-the-wall territory of that master Frederick Wiseman, with the camera seeming to be in the most private of spaces at the most intimate of times.

A scene in which Karl-Bertil views a portrait of himself for the first time, and breaks down in wails and sobs, is unbelievably powerful.

Ree's use of music and editing is likewise expertly nuanced. And any documentary that foregoes talking heads and graphics and gets closer to the hearts of its subjects is certainly worthwhile.

Regardless of whether any backtracking or cheating happened during the making of The Painter and the Thief, the story that is told is a thoughtful one about the slippery nature of ownership, as well as friendship.

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