The Painter and the Thief

A touching tale of friendship in a story too wild to be fiction

By Bradley Lane

Barbora is a struggling, but talented, artist displaying her paintings in a gallery in Oslo in April of 2015. Bertil is a drug-addled small-time criminal, and on April 20, 2015 he stole two of Barbora’s paintings from that gallery in Oslo valued at around $22,000. It was this incident that first brought their paths together, but it in no way would be their last encounter. In fact, Barbora invited Bertil to pose for her in another new painting to replace what was stolen. This audacious action begins a complicated and tender relationship between the two opposingly positioned characters that is rendered in vivid cinematic narrative by director Benjamin Ree.

While Bertil was apprehended, neither painting was found, and he professed to be clueless as to the paintings’ location. Barbora is devastated by the loss of her two masterworks and begins to inquire into Bertil’s motives. Quickly the bond over their shared love of art develops and with it, an exchange of one another’s experiences. The film explores wonderfully the backgrounds of the two characters as experienced from the other’s perspective. This exchange early in the film does a beautiful job of establishing the empathetic lens Ree uses to tell their story.

While it may seem like it on the surface, The Painter and the Thief is not a story about forgiveness. In the film’s opening moments, it is established that Barbora does not hold the theft of her paintings against Bertil. Rather, it explores the dynamics of a relationship that is in constant tension. Bertil lives a troubled life, constantly strung out on drugs and in conflict with those around him. Barbora gets caught in the whirlwind of Bertil’s mess and in the process reveals aspects of her character she had not yet previously examined. In this way, the film becomes about the ways people give and take in relation to one another, and the endless complexity of each of us as individuals.

Ree’s camerawork is intricate and often breathtaking, however, I think the film suffers as Ree begins to overutilize narrative convention. More than any other documentary of recent memory it is all too easy to picture the fictionalized film adaptation of the source material. Ree in some ways rejects the documentary format, and I think the film suffers slightly because of it.

Nevertheless, The Painter and the Thief is in close contention for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature of the year among other masterworks like The Last Dance and A Secret Love. The Painter and the Thief is available to stream on Hulu. – 4/5 stars