There’s a scene about a half-hour into “The Painter and the Thief” that I haven’t been able to shake since I saw Benjamin Ree’s extraordinary documentary this past January at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s an expression of pure emotion so raw, unguarded and vulnerable, you might find yourself wanting to avert your eyes. As a good Irish Catholic, I was brought up to be deeply uncomfortable with overt displays of feeling, so I’ll confess that upon first viewing I spent a portion of the scene examining my snowboots out of polite deference to the film’s subjects, and yet I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s an intimate, transformational moment in a person’s life that I still can’t quite believe was captured on film (or rather, digital video) and I suppose some explanation is in order.
In 2015, two large oil paintings by the artist Barbora Kysilkova were stolen from the window displays of the Gallery Nobel in Oslo, Norway. Most thieves simply cut artworks out of their frames using a knife, but in this case, the over 200 nails holding the canvases in place were carefully removed with professional precision in a process that investigators speculate lasted at least an hour. Surveillance footage revealed two thieves delicately wrapping the paintings in rope. One was later apprehended and sentenced to 75 days in prison. The paintings were never recovered.
Devastated, Kysilkova goes to the trial and introduces herself to the thief. A wiry, inked-up mohawked man reaching what appears to be a very rough end to his 30s, Karl-Bertil Nordland is a career criminal, drug addict and all-around screwup who’s spent nearly a quarter of his life in jail. He claims he can’t remember what he or his accomplice did with her paintings, having been up for four days straight before the robbery, raging on a monthlong booze and methamphetamine bender. Karl-Bertil might look like a villain from a “Mad Max” movie and yet he’s rigorously respectful and a little bit starstruck in his first encounter with the artist. See, he’s not just a thief. He’s also a fan.
Karl-Bertil’s cramped apartment is decked out from floor to ceiling with sketches, prints and drawings with barely a glimpse of available wall space, the same way almost every inch of his body is covered in elaborate tattoos. (Barbora’s boyfriend wryly observes that the “Snitchers Are A Dying Breed” inked across Karl-Bertil’s chest suggests any further information about the robbery will not be forthcoming.) But she’s fascinated all the same by this courtly criminal and asks him to sit for a portrait. An unlikely friendship forms during their sketching and painting sessions, with our refined, bourgeoisie artist — and by extension, we in the audience — fascinated by the contradictions of this scrappy, uncommonly thoughtful wreck of a man.
The portrait’s unveiling is the scene I was talking about. Like most of Kysilkova’s work it’s a stunner, and seeing himself through Barbora’s eyes on a giant canvas causes Karl-Bertil to scream. He gasps, his eyes bulging out of his head and he finally explodes into tears. He collapses into the artist’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably for minutes on end. In their chats, Karl-Bertil has spoken quite candidly of the all-consuming self-hatred that drives his druggy, destructive benders. Seeing this mangy street rat that he so loathes in such bold, heroic light on Barbora’s canvas is too much for him to bear. The sobs come heaving up from somewhere deep inside his chest, the cries of a man who never before thought himself worthy of being part of something so beautiful.
“The Painter and the Thief” follows their relationship for the next three years on a most unexpected trajectory. (You might think you know where it’s going, but you don’t.) “She sees me very well,” Karl-Bertil admits, “But she forgets that I can see her too.” The film gradually reveals that Barbora might not be quite as stable as we’ve first assumed, and Lee starts digging into the compulsions and disorderly habits that make both artists and art aficionados into kindred spirits sometimes. She’s as addicted to creating images as Karl-Bertil is to consuming them.
Lee plays a bit of footsie sometimes with the chronology — especially a shattering motorcycle accident that he teases unnecessarily early, as if this were some sort of true-crime podcast. (At Sundance this year, I noticed the relentless foreshadowing and ominous music beds that make so many of those things unlistenable steadily creeping their way into documentary films.) His access to his subjects is so incredible and their emotions so direct, there’s no need to gussy up the story with narrative trickery that muddies up the timeline.
Ultimately it’s a movie about how art can change people's lives for better and worse, altering our perspectives of ourselves and the world around us. But it’s also about how such work isn’t created in a vacuum. The film’s note-perfect final shot drifts from our real-life participants to one of Kysilkova’s canvases — illuminating the symbiotic relationship between the artist and the admirers, the seers and the seen, the painters and the thieves.
“The Painter and the Thief” starts streaming Friday, May 22 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.