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Movie review: ‘The Painter and the Thief’ is more than just an art heist

Dana Barbuto
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Daily Comet

Art heists have fascinated this area since the sensational - and still unsolved - 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where $300 million worth of art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet was pinched by a pair of thieves dressed as Boston Police officers.

That theft continues to catch worldwide headlines, as does the more recent 2015 caper involving Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova. Two of her paintings were stolen in the dead of night from an Oslo gallery. It’s another stranger-than-fiction heist featured in Benjamin Ree’s riveting documentary, “The Painter and the Thief,” available for rent on all the usual streaming spots on May 22.

The Norweigen documentarian paints his own sort of portrait - one of two lives suddenly intertwined after Kysilkova boldly befriends Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of two men convicted of pilfering her paintings. Nordland was on a heroin-fueled crime spree the night of the theft and he can’t recall where he left the paintings.

In court, Kysilkova approaches Nordland and invites him to sit for a portrait. It’s never clear what Kysilkova’s end game is. Might it be pity? Maybe it’s forgiveness? Perhaps her motive is just to find her missing paintings? You’re never quite sure and that uncertainty helps drive the narrative.

An unlikely friendship forms between the text-book odd couple: Nordland, a tatted-up (he has “Snitchers Are A Dying Breed” across his chest) ex-con junkie; Kysilkova, the proper, soft-spoken struggling artist. They find common ground and Kysilkova discovers a muse, sometimes to the dismay of her supportive husband, Øystein Stene. He warns his wife she could be heading down a path of self-destruction. What plays out is as unpredictable and bizarre as you’ve seen in any scripted narrative, except these twists and turns are all true. It’s fascinating viewing.

Ree spends ample time building his subjects’ tumultuous back stories and relaying the events through each of their perspectives. Kysilkova is characterized as a somewhat tortured artist who fled an abusive relationship. Her artwork looks dark and feels dangerous. In the first chapter, “The Painter,” the story is filtered through Kysilkova’s eyes. It opens with the surveillance footage of the heist and stops with a pivotal event that lands Nordland in the hospital. He looks directly into the camera and says, “She sees me very well, but she forgets I can see her, too.” The movie then backtracks to the beginning. We learn Nordland was abandoned by his mother and raised by an absent father, leading to a life of drugs and crime.

The camera also captures some truly human displays. Ree is there to document Nordland overcome by tears upon seeing his portrait for the first time; and again later when he scores a hit of heroin on the way to entering rehab. Another poignant moment arrives when Kysilkova and her husband attend a deeply personal therapy session. But, it’s the film’s final revelation that is its genius. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“The Painter and the Thief”

A documentary by Benjamin Ree featuring Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene. English with Norwegian subtitles.

(Not rated)

Grade: A-