Norwegian documentarian Benjamin Ree's "The Painter and the Thief" is a film about a bold art-world heist, and the strange relationship that develops between the painter and the man convicted of stealing her work. That event sets the stage, but it proves to be a bit of a MacGuffin for what this film unfolds: a story of deeply human connection between two souls that actually see each other, and the healing power wrapped up in that sense of visibility.
It begins like a procedural, with surveillance footage capturing the crime, and courtroom sketches that illustrate the first conversation between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland. She's curious about where her paintings are, but she's curious about him too, and asks to draw him. Feeling guilty and indebted to her, Nordland agrees to sit for a portrait.
There's a similarity here to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," in that to really get to know someone is to study them: their hands, their gestures, the way they move. Nordland, twitchy and self-conscious, covered in tattoos like "Honor Among Thieves" and "Snitchers Are a Dying Breed," is a drug addict who fell in with gangsters. When Kysilkova prods him, gently, and then with force, about where her paintings ended up, he's baffled. He was so high that day he has no idea where they are or why he even stole them, cutting the canvases from the frames, except that they were "beautiful."
The moment at which "The Painter and the Thief" reveals itself to be so much more than a story of a stolen painting and the junkie who took it, occurs when Kysilkova reveals her first portrait to Nordland. At first, he doesn't even seem to see it, and then suddenly his eyes widen in shock, his jaw drops, and he starts to sob in a way that makes it seem like he hasn't in a very long time. He's emotionally, mentally and physically overcome with his own sheer visibility; that Kysilkova took the time to look at him long enough to render his likeness in oil.
To be seen, to be acknowledged is an almost primal human emotional need, which "The Painter and the Thief" beautifully lays out, showing the audience the ways in which Nordland's childhood, in which he was abandoned by his mother and ignored by an absentee father, led to his struggles with drugs and crime. He has a compulsive drive to self-destruct just because he wants someone to look at him, to pay attention to him.
But Nordland sees Kysilkova too, and the film switches perspective between the two subjects, as they each study the other throughout their tumultuous but deeply bonded friendship. We start to understand that Kysilkova doesn't just look at Nordland as an aesthetic object. In him, she sees herself, her own trauma, her own addiction, which is painting, creating art out of all the dark and scary things in life.
It is an almost startlingly intimate film, following this strange relationship between these two, as they go through the challenges of life: a car accident that nearly paralyzes Nordland, during which Kysilkova becomes his greatest advocate, a stint in jail for him; her own struggles with relationships and money and her career. A frisson of mystery wafts throughout, the whereabouts of her paintings always on Kysilkova's mind. Ultimately though, it was never really about the paintings, but the grace that came out of their theft, because she chose to look further, to look beyond the crime and see the person behind it.