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A strange, amusing piece:The Painter and The Thief

Lovers of art, artistic espression, and emotionally-crowded life will love this film. Being in love with ambiguity also helps.

The Painter and The Thief

Grade: B+

Director: Benjamin Ree

Screenplay: Documentary

Cast: Karl Bertil-Nordland, Barbora Kysilkova

Runtime: 1 hr 42 m

By: John DeSando

A photo-realist painter asks to do a portrait of the thief who stole her masterpiece from an Oslo museum. He complies and some strange variation of Stockholm emerges, tats and all.  The Painter and Thief is a documentary like none you have seen before—the crime is real, and the principals are the originals. Weird and complicated as the real crime was, this documentary beats it by a Louvre mile.

Barbora Kysilkova had been a minor Czech photo realism star now settled in Norway. When Karl Bertil-Nordland steals two of her paintings, he is distraught enough that to agree to the portrait. Why she needs to do it would confuse a convention of Freudians, why he does is inscrutable because he can’t even remember why he committed it in the first place. Or rather, he doesn’t offer his drug intake as excuse.

The Painter and the Thief eschews the usual documentary over- analysis of subjects because there is not an iota of chance that either understands their reasons. As far as the realism of a documentary, like Christopher Nolan, director Benjamin Ree skillfully upends the usual chronology and logic to play with their time together and ours to figure out the real reason this is happening.

Not that we ever get to that point. Bertil turns out to be much more than an addled addict obsessed with an artist, and in that resolution of character, the film takes off into the abstract world of artistic intent, inspiration, and truth. Bertil’s untutored passion for artistic expression (try to take your eyes off his tats—you can’t because like his disoriented life, there appears to be no reason for the designs until he starts to explain them). Same with the film, so keep reading good critics if you want to find Ree’s labyrinth.

Perhaps this film is memorable because it looks like boilerplate docudrama and it isn’t or because it looks like art and it is actually life not completely understood. If you are reading this review, you’ll be happy to be seduced by the ineffability of art. This is not a documentary; it is art.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.