The Painter and the Thief might be the best documentary of the year, if it could be fairly called a documentary. Instead, director Benjamin Ree’s film is more a mesmerizing, and potentially transgressive, investigation into just how far the documentary form can be torn apart and put back together – and whether the audience should accept such a wild reconfiguration.
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Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.
Intimate and involving as it can be, The Painter and the Thief increasingly leaves the impression that Kysilkova and Nordland are holding something back.
For the most part, The Painter and the Thief seems authentic, a very real portrait of two unique individuals. It not only explores the artistic impulse, but also issues of relationships, addiction and rehab. It also provides an interesting glimpse into the Norwegian prison system, which is geared toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.
It is an almost startlingly intimate film, following this strange relationship between these two, as they go through the challenges of life.
Twists and turns shape the narrative, but not always to Ree’s benefit; he responds by scrambling his film’s chronology in ways that threaten to rupture any sense of trust between director and viewer. Questions that one might ordinarily have dismissed instead take hold and fester. Just how real is any of this?
To get the desired emotional reaction, The Painter and the Thief proves able to deceive in ways that are best discovered for yourself. It works: In a genius final stroke, Ree pulls back to reveal the entire canvas, putting key aspects of this unconventional portrait into startling new perspective.
What we’re left with is a fascinating glimpse of the myopic mania for “inspiration” of the artist, and a look at a culture where compassion and restitution (apparently) carry more weight than “punishment’ for the thief.
The Painter and the Thief suggests, human relationships are complex and multidimensional things. And whenever you foolishly start to try to contain them in a simple frame, they stubbornly burst out.
The film’s sustained intimacy speaks highly of the trust the subjects came to feel for the filmmaker, who is able to cut to the quick as he follows and reveals their life phases while also maintaining a filmmaker’s discreet distance. It’s an unusual look at the slipperiness of the human condition.