Nothing can prepare you for Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird. Made on a budget of roughly $7.3 million, this World War II film is a combination of artistic beauty and moral depravity. Marhoul wrote, produced and directed this epic tale that focuses on an orphan (Pter Kotlár) as he traverses Eastern Europe and the incredibly vicious things he experiences along the way. The Painted Bird is based on a novel of the same name, written by Jerzy Kosinski, the author who also penned the marvelous Being There (which was later adapted into the 1979 film).
It's quickly discovered during the prologue things will get ugly – the young boy is seen running with (what I think is) a ferret. He's clearly trying to get away and soon the boy is tackled and beaten by bullies, then take the ferret and burn it alive. The boy looks helplessly at his dying pet, not knowing that he will provide that same look again and again. Losing a pet is a bummer; keep in mind this is maybe the cheeriest tragedy for the boy.
The boy, who's nameless, is staying with Marta (Nina Sunevic) while his Jewish parents hide from the Germans. When Marta suddenly dies, the shocked not is cruelly left to care for himself. With little options, he takes off on an aimless journey of survival and necessity.
During his trip he encounters numerous people from different walks of life. The types of people he meets are astounding – Olga (Alla Sakalova), a healer; a miller (Udo Keir) and his wife (Michaela Dolezalová); a bird breeder (Lech Dyblik); a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård); a priest (Harvey Keitel) and a local churchgoer (Julian Sands); a woman (Júlia Valentova Vidrnáková) whose elderly husband just died; and a Soviet soldier (Barry Pepper). Each person the boy meets has a profound effect on him, but it's mostly of the horrific and depraved variety. His experiences are eerily synonymous with the vagaries of war which, combined with his Jewish ethnicity, means the youngster faces an uphill battle to survive.
Thanks to Vladimír Smutny, the cinematography is outstanding. It's shot in black and white – the tones perfectly combine with the film's bleak tone. And let me tell you, it's all bleak. Marhoul sends the boy straight to hell for 169 minutes; each encounter comes with its own issue, seemingly more terrifying than the last. War and strife have eliminated the “kindness of strangers” ideal – everyone has become animals, instinctual and without morality. In this scenario, survival includes stepping over everyone in sight.
The boy's experiences are horrific enough to force audiences to look away and cringe. Somehow Marhoul coaxes you to keep watching. Knowing that, the boy, played with stoic bravery by Kotlár, becomes desensitized to the point of insanity. As the boy continues his journey, he must ask himself each time he meets someone, “How will this adult will take advantage of me?” That idea could only mean Marhoul wants to move beyond shocking viewers – instead he wants audiences to become just as numb to the physical and mental pain as the boy. If so, Marhoul has clearly gotten his point across; the director, who's made 3 films in 17 years, expertly limits the dialogue to avoid steering audiences, while he uses the camera to provide the narrative.
Besides that it's simply a matter of how we're supposed to process all of it.
Putting it mildly, The Painted Bird is a difficult watch. The atrocities contained will leave any model citizen questioning humanity. But Marhoul's latest is full of cinematic beauty and is obvious proof of excellent filmmaking prowess. It will undoubtedly leave viewers who finish the entire film (there have been walkouts during its screening at film festivals in Venice, Toronto and London) shrieking in horror, but will also likely prompt them to give out hugs en masse and provide the opposite behavior towards those they meet from here on out.
4.5 stars out of 5