In a key scene from “The Painted Bird” a young boy, not even 10-years-old, holds a small blackbird while a grizzled old man brushes white paint across its feathers. The man then releases it to a flock of blackbirds flying overhead. Immediately the swarming flock savagely attack the painted bird and within a few violent seconds it’s plummeting back to earth, pecked to death by its own kind.
The analogy is a grim and potent one. Humanity is like the flock of birds, willing to attack, destroy and devour their own, even the weak and especially those who dare to look different. For a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe that was a vivid and painful reality. For this particular boy the ugliness of humanity extends far beyond the German invaders. Wickedness is found in every village and farmhouse he crosses; iniquity in most of the peasants and soldiers he meets.
“The Painted Bird” is a horrifying and intense 169-minute epic from Czech writer-director-producer Václav Marhoul. His film is based on Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 controversial novel which was first published as a fictional work, marketed to appear autobiographical, and now widely considered fictional once again. Marhoul’s adaptation debuted at last year’s Venice International Film Festival and was marked by several walkouts in response to the movie’s graphic subject matter and unrelenting bleakness. But as Marhoul told the Venice press when defending his film, “Only in darkness can we see light.”
Make no mistake, “The Painted Bird” is not for the faint of heart. It can be shocking, at times savage, and for some it will be unbearable to watch. It’s a story told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy trying to survive in a war-ravaged land where shells of the living, drained of every drop of love and compassion, do nothing more than exist in a swell of unfettered human depravity. It’s a land full of people desensitized to their own indecency and reverting back to their most primitive instincts. As a result the boy both witnesses and experiences acts of unbridled brutality and unspeakable abuse.
We first meet the boy (played with heartbreaking innocence by Petr Kotlár) as World War II nears its end. He’s living with an old maid on a dusty isolated farm, left there by his Jewish parents after the Nazi roundups began. When the woman suddenly dies the boy loses his caregiver and safety net. So he sets out into the wild hoping to find his way home and into the arms of his mother and father. Instead he finds a cold, rotting world gutted by the war and where ‘the kindness of strangers‘ is as foreign as the ruthless invading forces.
The film is broken into nine chapters, each named after people the boy meets on his hellish odyssey. Among them Stellan Skarsgård as a disillusioned German soldier, Udo Kier as a jealous and obsessed miller, Harvey Keitel as a sympathetic priest, and Barry Pepper as a hardened Russian sniper. Most of the encounters end horrifically with barely a shimmer of light. And in heartbreaking fashion each chisel away at the boy’s innocence and humanity. Christian symbols speak to the idea of grace, but it’s smothered out by a society handed over to their own lusts and violence.
Marhoul communicates mostly through the camera and what little dialogue there is is spoken in an invented Slavic-like language in order to avoid indicting any one single nation. Cinematographer Vladimír Smutný shoots in stunning 35mm black-and-white with a CinemaScope ratio providing us with the film’s lone bits of beauty. The brilliant use of light and shadows, his searing and evocative close-ups, the meticulous compositions and eye-catching backdrops. Whether Smutný’s camera is gazing up at the gentle sway of birch treetops or peering around a corner at some unthinkable horror, the film’s most profound voice comes from its visual language.
“The Painted Bird” is an unorthodox Holocaust drama that puts its audience face-to-face with the inhumanity of humanity. It’s pitiless and unyielding conviction forces us to endure scene after scene of appalling cruelty, daring us to grow numb to it and therefore proving its bigger point. By the end you genuinely feel like you’ve been on a traumatic near three-hour journey, one I’m not sure when I’ll want to take again. But that doesn’t negate the sting of the film’s thought-provoking message. Nor does it nullify Vladimír Smutný’s unforgettable and award-worthy imagery. It simply makes it a hard movie to recommend to all audiences. Some will be absorbed, others will be repulsed. I’ll let you decide which you’re likely to be. “The Painted Bird” opens July 17th on VOD.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS