The Painted Bird is a bleak odyssey of humanity’s darkest instincts. A Jewish boy suffers horrific abuse while traversing an unnamed Slavic country during World War II. Shot in stark black and white, The Painted Bird has graphic depictions of murder, rape, pedophilia, and bestiality. The boy is a witness, and victim, of warzone atrocities. Czech director Václav Marhoul delivers a brutal, unsparing account of survival.
We first meet the boy (Petr Kotlár) at a dusty peasant cottage. Small, slight, and with dark eyes, he’s cared for by the aged Marta (Nina Šunevič). The boy does his chores, eats a meager soup with a sliver of potato, and stares wistfully at a picture of his family. He watches Marta wash her feet. The next day, Marta has not moved. His cautious approach results in a fiery accident. He flees into the woods.
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The boy is branded a demon by local villagers. He’s beaten, and then sold to a whispering witch. She tries to excise the evil spirits from his blood. The boy’s harrowing journey begins. He crosses paths with many people and different situations in his quest to survive. He’s rarely treated with kindness. Each encounter leaves him scarred physically and mentally. The boy becomes hardened to cruelty as he trudges through the war torn landscape. He learns to be resolute against terror and despair.
The Painted Bird is the film adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel. The characters speak the Interslavic language, except the German and Russian soldiers. Each person or group the boy meets is introduced by a black card. The near three hour runtime is broken down into segments. These chapters are a collective measurement of innocence lost and defiled.
Václav Marhoul’s matter of fact shooting style increases the film’s shock value. Let’s examine two of the more depraved characters. An ailing priest (Harvey Keitel) places the boy in the care of a trusted parishioner, Garbos (Julian Sands). He is revealed to be a twisted pedophile. Garbos warns the boy, he will kill him if he talks. During a cold winter, the boy is sheltered by the sultry Labina (Júlia Vidrnáková). She uses the boy to fulfill her desires. He is heartbroken when his prepubescent body cannot satisfy her. Labina resorts to another method. These incredibly disturbing scenes are realistically depicted. The raw ugliness, especially to a child, cannot be mitigated. The film is relentless with sickening imagery.
The boy could be any child lost in war. His experience is a reflection of mankind’s worst behavior. It is also an equal testament to our resilience and fortitude. The Painted Bird never loses sight of the boy’s strength. His life becomes the faint glimmer of hope. But he has learned hatred and vengeance. This is perhaps the most convincing argument for the film. The toll of war leaves permanent damage.
The Painted Bird had walkouts during its 2019 premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It also received a standing ovation. It is not an experience for the faint of heart, or easily offended. I was appalled, saddened, and transfixed. The Painted Bird is a devastating piece of art. The film is a production of PubRes, Silver Screen, and The Ukrainian State Film Agency. It will be available July 17th on demand from IFC Films.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.