What is a documentary supposed to be? Epic? Damning? Paradigm-shifting? Maybe. Certainly plenty of docs have inspired real change against fearsome opposition, but that doesn’t mean they all need to. A great documentary doesn’t need to have a huge sweep — it needs to expose huge truths.

By that definition, The Painter and the Thief is absolutely a great documentary. Director Benjamin Ree‘s steady hand as a storyteller gives the unusual tale a cohesive arc, but it’s the sheer honesty of its two principal subjects that set its apart from so many of its peers.

The film follows Barbara Kysilkova, a Czech-born painter residing in Norway who has two of her most valuable paintings stolen from a gallery by Karl Bertil-Nordland, a man whose life is too kaleidoscopic for simple summary. Barbara, fascinated by the enigma of Karl’s crime, approaches him at his court hearing to ask him to sit for her. What follows is the development of a deep, complex relationship between the two that investigates everything from the process of art creation to the efficacy of criminal reform.

Barbara, ostensibly the film’s primary subject, begins the documentary as a likable, struggling-artist type, but as her life winds and intersects with Karl’s, new shades of her character emerge. She fights tirelessly for Karl’s wellbeing, neglecting her own personal life in the process, and yet her artistic fascination with the man sometimes meanders into the realm of the exploitative. Ree showcases some fantastically intimate moments in Barbara’s personal life that sometimes give the film a kitchen-sink feel, one that suits it well.

Just as much care is given to the story of Karl, a man far from what one might traditionally imagine as an art thief. Introduced as a drug-addict shackled by his criminal habits, Karl quickly becomes something much more — constantly yearning for a different type of life while being seemingly unable to escape his own. He is a craftsman, a thinker, and a type of artist in his own right, and the film does an excellent job of demonstrating to the audience what draws Barbara to him.

To expand any further is to deny the film the novelty of its many twists and turns. Those hoping for Hollywood thrills and big budgets need not apply; the expanse of The Artist in the Thief lies not in its technical scope but its emotional one. If the film has a flaw, it’s that the audience is only able to fully grasp its central figures until just about the time the credits roll. Ree has displayed a world that demands to be observed for much longer than the movie’s sub-two hour runtime — it may be frustrating to have the experience end so soon, but that frustration just serves as a reminder that the experience itself was a deeply compelling one.


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