In an essay published last year on Forbes.com, the writer Kalev Leetaru made an interesting – if somewhat obvious – argument. Cameras, he contended, don’t capture reality, rather they offer only a version of it.
“The truth is that we don’t witness events through photographs,” he wrote. “We witness one possible constructed reality of those events through the eyes of individuals telling stories and portraying their own narrative and interpretation of what they see.”
Leetaru’s proposition came to mind as I watched the documentary “The Painter and the Thief,” which is available through multiple streaming services (I watched it on Hulu). In only his second documentary feature, his first being “Magnus,” a 2016 film about a teen chess prodigy, Norwegian director Benjamin Ree explores the relationship between two people who are just what his film’s title makes clear: The Czech-born artist Barbora Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland, a Norwegian guy whose struggles with heroin addiction have led him to commit crimes, such as robbery.
Case in point, and the basis of Ree’s film: Bertil-Nordland served time in prison for stealing one of Kysilkova’s paintings.
It was that specific robbery that attracted director Ree, who for whatever reason had long been interested in making a film about art theft. He contacted Kysilkova, who had already decided not just to forgive Bertil-Nordland but actually to see if he would let her paint him. And so began Ree’s four-year-long process of filming what happened next.
Incorporating footage shot by a friend of Kysilkova’s, that of the artist approaching Bertil-Nordland in court, Ree picks up filming the two as they feel each other out – each of them, for personal reasons, having good reason not to trust easily.
And he continues, exploring their individual lives as well – detailing Kysilkova’s past relationship with an abusive partner and Bertil-Nordland’s tempestuous youth – pushing his ever-present camera at times so close to each of the film’s principals that we can almost count the pores on her cheeks and the stubble comprising the individual hairs on the buzz-cut sides of his head.
In the midst of all this character study, which includes Kysilkova’s current relationship with her calm but sometimes confused new partner Øystein and a brief encounter with Bertil-Nordland’s father, Ree explores the obvious mystery of what happened to the stolen paintings – only one of which Bertil-Nordland took, the other being looted by his robbery cohort.
This sequence in particular offers viewers a satisfying, narrative payoff as Kysilkova – having been told by Bertil-Nordland that he was too high to have any actual memory of the crime – searches for and locates the other thief and then follows his lead to an apartment complex where at least one of the paintings might be stashed.
Yet, too, this sequence, as well as an especially moving moment when Kysilkova unveils the portrait she has painted of her new friend – an action that causes him to choke up with emotion – is so dramatically perfect that it’s tempting to question just how honest a filmmaker Ree truly is. That reaction, though, might just be a reflection of my own attitude toward the ground rules of so-called reality television that is itself – as is generally known – anything but real.
Then again, what is reality? As the writer Leetaru points out, aren’t photographers – or more to the point here filmmakers – by selectively picking time and place, angle and framing device, choosing to tell the story they want? Portraying a reality in the way they prefer, not in a way that someone with a more objective sensibility might pursue? What is real and what is fake is exactly the kind of ongoing argument that is at least part of why the United States is, at this moment, embroiled in such furor.
In the case of “The Painter and the Thief,” though, my own resolution to that conundrum turns out to be simple: What, in the end, is the filmmaker’s intent? And Ree’s intent seems as obvious as it turns out to be positive.
By researching something that intrigued him, he stumbled onto a story far more interesting than a mere art heist: He discovered two damaged people, attached by a crime that affected both, finding in each other a way both to make amends and to face a better tomorrow.