At first, The Painter and the Thief feels like merely a gimmick. We’re served with the setup almost instantly—a Czech painter named Barbora Kysilkova forms a relationship with the man who stole two of her paintings, Karl Bertil-Nordland. We watch Barbora paint. We see the painting being stolen via security cam footage. We hear the story about how she approached Karl inside the courtroom after he was caught, unable to resist her own curiosity. “Why did you steal my paintings?” she asks. “Because they were beautiful.” Karl responds. She invites the thief to sit for a portrait after he is released.

The bond between these two strangers initially seems as if it’s being forged for investigative effect, with the end goal of the documentary being for Barbora to find her stolen paintings (or, at the very least, find out what happened to them). We expect a probing thriller of sorts based on these established directions, but The Painter and the Thief becomes so much more. It probes, for sure, but in entirely unexpected ways.

The switch happens no more than 20 minutes into this endlessly evolving and captivating work by Benjamin Ree. After their initial meeting, Barbora paints a portrait of Karl, which she reveals to him at their next meeting. Karl’s reaction to his own portrait—a mixture of strung-out paralysis and overwhelming emotion—is one of the more striking images the film produces. It holds and lingers on this man in sobs, capturing the poignant impact art can have on the soul even if it goes unexplained. At this point, we as an audience couldn’t even begin to understand what causes these emotions in Karl. We can guess. But we’d still just be viewing him as a painter would a subject.

This changes throughout the film, as we follow Barbora and Karl on a journey that cements their bond and continues to build upon the foundation of this unexpected friendship. Both personalities become fully fleshed out as the film progresses, transforming from broad initial strokes on a canvas to the fine lines and details of a finished work. Karl, especially, is the film’s central vein. His journey from one steppingstone to another (many of which should remain unmentioned and be saved for the film itself) is absolutely invigorating to watch. Likewise, Barbora is equally as interesting yet for completely different reasons.

But it’s their relationship that sticks to you at the end of the day. The Painter and the Thief, above all things, is a superb analysis of how strangers meet and connect. What begins as something designed to be an exploratory art-heist thriller becomes a profile of unexpected friendship, and the documentary seems to be constantly reinventing itself as it moves along. Barbora and Karl are perfect subjects—flawed and fascinating, with an affinity for art that seems to be the driving force that pulls them together like magnets. Just wait until you behold the indelible final shot, a slow camera pull from a painting that perfectly encapsulates the mystery and magic of artistic bond. It’ll leave you breathless.

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