‘The Painted Bird’: A Boy’s Relentless War Odyssey Puts Your Stomach to the Test

Celluloid Dreams

“I want to go home!”. Surrounded by villagers and farmers holding pitchforks to his chest, the Boy wails in fear. It is one of the sole moments we hear his raspy voice. Tossed around by geopolitical forces trickling down all societal layers of war-riddled Europe in the ’40s, the Boy goes from village to village. Nine bleak encounters rob the child of his childhood and organize the 3-hour-long film in nine gruesome chapters. Layer upon layer of darkness is added to his forced pilgrimage. It is not surprising that people walk out during screenings of The Painted Bird: the third feature of filmmaker Václav Marhoul and the Czech Republic’s entry to the Oscars puts the audiences’ stomachs to the test.

A vampire, a gypsy, a Yid. Even with the dialogue as bare as it is, Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel makes sure that we know the many evils the transient child (Petr Kotlar) channels and awakens in the fearful and traumatized adults he encounters. Superstition, sadism, and slavery lead to rape, zoophilia and gratuitous violence. From Udo Kier as a wife-beating miller, gouging the eyes out of his farm help, to Julian Sands as a perverted pedophile, the Boy’s war journey is punctuated by an international cast of excellent actors. Other improvised custodians along the way are Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Barry Pepper. The casting of Russian actor Aleksey Kravchenko, however, is also a clear nod to Come and See. Elem Klimov’s 1985 soviet war film, in which Kravchenko played a role similar to Kotlar’s, has greatly influenced Marhoul in his adaptation of The Painted Bird.

Paved with cruelty and torment, the journey finds its rhythm in lessons learned. As it dictates the relinquishment of any moral compass, wartime quickly teaches the Boy the most obvious ones; ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘live only to survive’. It seems that whichever way he turns, he finds lost, depraved or just hungry souls on this path, their wickedness fueled by infinite sources of pain. He hardens his heart, absorbing the immorality and cruelty of the people he meets, and keeps going. Without much hesitation, regret or identification, he takes off the shoes of a dead child, just shot off a train convoy to the camps. The further he travels, the more his numbness settles in. Does he even remember his name?

The novel was controversial in 1965 for alleged plagiarism and suspicions of an anti-Polish sentiment. Today’s controversy around the film adaptation relates to Marhoul’s controlled and masterful ways to bring the harrowing violence and sickening cruelty to the screen. The filmmaker spent a decade making The Painted Bird. The result is a relentless odyssey of pain that, for some, is unbearable to watch. While it’s true that Marhoul leaves barely any room for relief, some encounters seem slightly less cruel, though perhaps equally tragic, than others. When the Boy meets an alcoholic bird trapper, hard but valuable knowledge is passed on. The man paints the wings of one of his sparrows and throws it up in the air. The camouflaged bird, now foreign to his flock, is brutally beaked to death. The disheartening metaphor sinks in while the Boy observes the avian witch-hunt. While cruel fatalism permeates the man’s harsh message, it also suggests caution and, ultimately, care.

The Painted Bird takes place somewhere in Eastern Europe. Without specifying where exactly, it exacerbates the feeling of a no-man’s-land where anything goes. The regal compositions of DoP Vladimír Smutný, shot in black and white on 35mm, are strangely bucolic and engulf humans as insignificant pawns in wide landscapes. The Painted Bird is worthy of a Hieronymus Bosh painting where everyone surrenders to every earthly sin imaginable; Nazis, Cossacks and communists alike. The tale, however, has long left the biblical and moral dichotomy of the good and the bad in its rearview mirror. Here reigns only the chaos of evil.

Inge Coolsaet

Film critic and translator from Belgium, currently living on unceded Coast Salish territory (Vancouver, Canada)

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