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The Painter and the Thief

"astonishing... inspiring... Hugely recommended"

★★★★★ - STUFF 

- Why this doco is unlike anything you've seen before - 

Norwegian film-maker Benjamin Ree had long been fascinated by the subject of art theft and was actively looking for a story to tell, when he happened on an account of an otherwise unremarkable gallery heist in Oslo.

The artist whose works were taken – Barbora Kysilkova – was not particularly well-known. She didn't have any international profile. Although, after seeing some of her work, you may well ask, “why not?”

The thieves were easily and quickly caught. Their faces were clearly visible on security camera files and they were both already known to the local police.

But Ree contacted Kysilkova and asked if he might bring his cameras along to perhaps make a short piece on the events.

What transpired, as Kysilkova chose to befriend the young man who had stolen her paintings, is the subject of this astonishing and completely unexpected documentary.

Over the course of three years, the friendship and alliance between Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland became a cornerstone of both their lives. Kysilkova produced numerous paintings and drawings of Nordland and his partner. She was in the hospital with him after a car crash – a probable suicide attempt – nearly crippled him and she supported and encouraged him through his recovery from addiction. And yet, this film is no “inspirational do-gooder” yarn.

When we first meet Nordland, he is a shell of a man. The drug use has hollowed out his eyes and his mind. He is barely able to string a sentence together, even when sober. His reaction when he sees the first of Kysilkova's paintings of him is heartbreaking in its vulnerability and his incomprehension that anyone should care enough to do such a thing.

But eventually, a strong and insightful figure emerges from the shadows of addiction. His statement, “she watches me, but she forgets that I am watching her also”, could be read as menacing, when in fact it marks the beginnings of Nordland rediscovering his own strength and empathy, as Kysilkova's life starts to fall apart a little. A resolution, when it arrives, is as unexpected as anything a scriptwriter could dream up, but so unlikely and perfect, I doubt they would dare to even put it on paper.

There's another story in The Painter and the Thief, which I doubt the film-makers even knew they were telling. But here in Aotearoa, we will notice it immediately: Nordland is an addict and a convicted criminal. He has no obvious income and lives with some quite debilitating mental health issues. And yet, he is safely and securely housed in what looks like a well-built and equipped one-bedroom apartment. Whatever else bedevils him, he is not living under the threat of homelessness, crammed into close confinement with other addicts.

It struck me that so much of Nordland's eventual triumph over addiction and despair was due to the simple fact that the Norwegian government and its housing co-operatives make sure that all people have a secure place to call home.

With a recidivism rate of around 20 per cent (our is more like 50 per cent), Norway could maybe teach the world something about running a prison system too.

The Painter and The Thief is a film unlike any other I have seen. Without narration or obvious directorial intrusion, it charts a friendship as unlikely as it is inspiring.

So typical of this frustrating year, that one of the very last films to open, should be one of the very best. Hugely recommended.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

The Painter and The Thief is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba!

(In English and Norwegian with English subtitles)

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