LFF 2020 ‘The Painter and The Thief’ Review: Friends in Low Places

A Czech painter, Barbora Kysilkova, has two of her paintings stolen by a thief. The thief is caught but the paintings are not recovered. Hoping to achieve some kind of understanding, Kysilkova meets with the thief, asking him to model for her and ultimately forming an unusual friendship.

Although documentary, the film is masterful navigates the complex emotions of this unusual dynamic. It withholds information and has several revelations and surprises. It achieves incredible insight into both of it’s principle subjects. The film is structured to focus on the perspective of the painter and then the thief but because the film is about perception, each participants section is actually about the other and how they view them. The act of perception is portrayed as immensely powerful.

A profound moment early on sees the thief, Bertil, confronted by the first painting of himself. It’s an immensely powerful moment which completely destroys Karl’s hardened exterior and touches something very hidden. He perhaps feels truly seen for the first time in his life and is humbled, moved and profoundly frightened by the experience. It’s the first time we are allowed access to Bertil’s torment and is as shocking a moment as you’ll see in a film this year.

The dynamic between the two is incredibly natural. It’s strained and provocative but clearly benefits them both, at least as first. As the movie progresses the potentially parasitic nature of this relationship is explored. Perhaps one of them is being exploited here, and perhaps it’s not the one you’d expect. This parallels the nature of the documentary. After all if Barbora is a tourist to Bertil’s suffering, the camera crew are tourists to this act. It’s all an experiment, a journey into real pain, but is Bertil lost in the process?

The presence of the camera is rarely acknowledged and it is easy to forget this is a documentary. Remembering the existence of the camera can be challenging. As Bertil gradually acclimatises to being seen by Barbora, we are already seeing him. Looking into this profoundly personal relationship can feel voyeuristic. These are the perils of docudrama, but this film gives you good reason to want to suspend your disbelief and fully invest in the narrative being constructed of these peoples lives. One in which friendship can bring light to dark places and make the act of stealing a painting, one of discovery.

Five Stars

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