Small Screen Berkeley: ‘The Painter and the Thief,’ ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’ and ‘The Wolf House’

All at the Virtual Roxie: the first great documentary of 2020 is full of surprising and deeply moving revelations; on set with a comic great; and an unsettling film best watched with the lights on.

The Painter and the Thief. Photo: Courtesy Roxie Theater

After surviving an abusive relationship in Prague, Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova relocated to Norway to start a new life. An exhibition of her work in Oslo signaled a fresh beginning — until, late one night, two men broke into the gallery, removed two of her paintings from their frames, and made off with them.

The Painter and the Thief (opening at the Virtual Roxie Cinema on Friday, May 22) tells the story of what happened when Kysilkova discovered the identity of one of the thieves. A petty criminal and heroin addict, Karl-Bertil Nordland was so strung out at the time of the theft that he couldn’t remember what he’d done with Barbora’s paintings.

Directed by Benjamin Ree, The Painter and the Thief is the first great documentary of 2020 —and an absolute bargain at the Roxie’s asking price of $3.99. Focusing on the unexpected relationship that would develop between Kysilkova and Nordland, the film is a tribute to both the transformative power of art and Norway’s rehabilitative approach to justice.

Nordland, adorned with tattoos proclaiming “honor among thieves” and “snitchers are a dying breed” and owner of a wide range of anti-social T-shirts (“crime pays”, “fat people are hard to kidnap”), did his time and is now training to be a nurse. Perhaps he’s even been saving lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Rees’ film is a salute to two damaged risk-takers brought together by fate, each one willing to take a chance on the other. Full of surprising and deeply moving revelations, The Painter and the Thief is truly a must-see.

‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’

Also highly recommended — and also opening at the Roxie on Friday — The Ghost of Peter Sellers tells the story of one of the comic actor’s least known features, Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Shot in 1973, the film sat on the shelf for ten years before eventually leaking out onto VHS tape in the mid-1980s. It’s so obscure even I haven’t seen it!

Director Peter Medak has been living with the fallout from this benighted feature for the last 40-plus years. The Czech exile had rapidly become one of Britain’s most promising directors  in the late ’60s (his 1971 political satire, The Ruling Class, is a black comedy classic), but his experiences shooting Noonday Sun in Cyprus derailed his career.

Featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members (including wonderful Murray Melvin, who rose to fame in 1961’s A Taste of Honey), The Ghost of Peter Sellers details every excruciating disaster that befell Noonday Sun’s production. If you enjoyed Lost in La Mancha (the film about Terry Gilliam’s cursed screen adaptation of ‘Don Quixote’), you’ll get similar mileage from Sellers.


‘The Wolf House’

Finally, fans of Czech animator (am I detecting a pattern in this week’s films?) Jan Švankmajer will likely appreciate The Wolf House, currently screening at the Virtual Roxie. The story of a young woman banished to a remote out building in the woods, The Wolf House is the most unsettling film I’ve seen in quite some time: a blend of clay and papier maché-mation, it depicts characters and objects melting, shifting and transmogrifying to disturbing effect, all the while accompanied by a dissonant score. Parents, this is one best watched with the lights on, and after the kiddies are safely asleep.