The Painted Bird
2020, NR, 169 min. Directed by Václav Marhoul. Starring Petr Kotlár, Nina Sunevic, Lech Dyblik, Petr Vanek, Michaela Doležalová, Barry Pepper, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, Udo Keir, Ala Sakalova.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 17, 2020
The Painted Bird is theatre of cruelty at its most literal. Brutally faithful to Polish author Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial 1965 novel of the same name (once considered unfilmable), its hellish narrative follows a homeless boy wandering the Eastern European countryside during World War II as he encounters, in picaresque fashion, unimaginable brutality and rare acts of kindness. His otherness (he’s presumably Jewish, perhaps Romani) marks him as a stranger in a strange land for whom each day is an act of survival shaped by the vagaries of superstition and prejudice. Nearly three hours in length, the movie becomes an endurance test with each heartless act, relentless in its depiction of a Hobbesian state of humankind, in which life has little innate value.
In its first hour, the unnamed boy witnesses a group of adolescents senselessly incinerate his pet squirrel; a jealous husband gouge out the eyes of another man using a soup spoon; a mob of angry female villagers rape and kill a feral seductress with a wine bottle; and a benevolent birdkeeper violently tremor in the throes of death after hanging himself. Pedophilia, bestiality, physical abuse, and more bloodshed follow in the next roughly two hours. While Vladimir Smutny’s crisply beautiful black-and-white cinematography strangely dilutes some of the violence, the sadistic push and masochistic pull of The Painted Bird remains ever potent. In Kotlár’s amazingly naturalistic performance, Joska’s expressive dark eyes slowly stagnate as his innocence hardens, eventually resembling black voids. If you’re able to stick with it, the movie may have the same desensitizing effect on you.
Producer/director/screenwriter Marhoul principally envisions this bleak environment in a series of passive tableaux recalling Russian master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood likely provided a certain amount of inspiration here. (Interestingly, when shooting his young protagonist, he often spatially relegates the boy to the sides and corners of the frame, rather than front and center.) To avoid the overt politicization of the film’s setting, Marhoul’s script uses a semi-constructed Interslavic language for the characters to speak when they infrequently speak, with the exception of the surprisingly more sympathetic German and Russian soldiers Joska meets. Whether this undaunted adaptation of Kosinski’s novel is a quasi-historical document of a specific country’s atrocities in a specific war or something more grounded in the universal horrors of war inflicted around the globe century after century (including during our own nation’s civil conflict), either way it’s bitter medicine to swallow. The more likely question will be whether it was necessary for this film to adhere so closely to its source and chronicle a multitude of barbaric acts over its relatively long duration, on the presumption that less barbarism would have been just as effective. The answer to that telling query may simply lie in the luxury to ask it.
The Painted Bird is on VOD now.