Less than three minutes to almost three hours, The painted bird tells you exactly what type of movie you have chosen to be exposed to. The film opens with a young boy (Petr Kotlár) sprinting through the woods, a whining possum or ferret rocking in his arms. Other boys, older and crueler, will catch up. When they do, they quickly knock out the front teeth and then burn his pet rodent alive in front of him. Things do not improve for the boy from here. At the end of this exquisitely filmed but stunning meditation on humanity’s ability to evil, the memory of the experience can relatively count as one of his happiest. Things can always get worse, The painted bird insists. Is there more sentiment from 2020 than that?
“It’s your fault,” says the boy’s older guardian when he returns home, bloody and pet. Regardless: She’s dead in the chair a few minutes later. Then the house goes, starved by flames, and suddenly the boy is alone and homeless, forced to cross an inhospitable world in search of sanctuary. In a few minutes he is wrapped in a sack bag and whipped by superstitious villagers and shouts in an Interlavisian language (never heard before on the screen, press notes happily inform) about the evil they think has had him. From here, the boy will be threatened, strangled, overworked, dangling from the rafters, buried up to his neck in dirt, chopped by ravens and much, much worse.
You could continue. The movie really does. It is a marathon of murder, mutilation, rape, pedophilia and bestiality. The Holocaust itself is basically a sub-plan: Although landscapes and lifestyles sometimes look really medieval, the film actually takes place over Eastern Europe around World War II, which sometimes drifts from the main story to dramatize, say, a failed escape from a Deutsche Reichsbahn train. (We eventually learn that the boy’s parents disappeared when Hitler’s final solution reached the door.) This episodic misery, this suffering of suffering, comes from an acclaimed novel by Be there author Jerzy Kosinski. Like much of the work of the Polish-American author, the book was embedded in authorial controversy – in this case, the revelation that its litany of horror was not, as Kosinski originally suggested, autobiographical. Perhaps it deserves more relief than outrage; of the final scene, who would not be happy to know that this did not actually happen to anyone?
Strange as it is to say about a movie that goes 170 minutes, The painted bird is financially in its own exhausting way. Director Václav Marhoul keeps everything that chews, from one unfair to the next, every step of the journey sketched in fast, hard brushstrokes. Some familiar faces, who belong to an international movie star: Stellan Skarsgård as a compassionate Nazi, Harvey Keitel as a friendly but forgetful priest, in a call back to her role in a more sentimental, appearing among the ensemble of worn European perceptions. depiction of the horrors of World War II – like a stone jumper. These chambers are less distracting than those in 1917– and thank God for that The painted bird does not try to work all its hellish sights in a single shot.
One can think of Come and see, Elem Klimov’s uninterrupted uplifting drama of contemporary cruelty – the rare war film that is legitimate, undoubtedly anti-war. But that film immersed the viewers not only in the violence but also in the psychological ordeal of its gloomy circumstances. The painted bird hovering in the distance and discarding trauma in advance. Its protagonist is more like the constantly brutalized donkey to Bressons Random balthazar, passed from one unfriendly keeper to the next. Kosinski’s novel gave us his first-person impression of the beating. Here he is just a quiet, resilient shell – less a character than a confusing embodiment of crushed innocence. His only real trait is an affection for animals, so of course he will be severely, methodically abused by it; on top of all human accidents, The painted bird erects a mound of animal carcasses, snaps horse necks and – in the metaphorical moment that gives the story its title – sends a marked bird into a herd that takes it for an intruder. We really know that the boy has been transformed by his terrible experiences when he politely beheads a goat.
All this passion is captured with great skill and art. Shot in Cinemascope, in sharp 35 mm black and white, The painted bird is beautiful just to look at, even if the content is unimaginably ugly; There are images that burn themselves in your memory, whether you want them to or not. Yet the film’s emotional spectrum, a flat line of unsurpassed despair, is as limited as its color palette. And it settles into a pattern so impatiently repetitive (and repetitively confusing) that it begins to resemble self-parody: How many times can we see this boy begin to adapt to a new home, only to discover that the adult who takes him in is as sadistic or broken as before? The painted bird is ultimately the kind of beating that treats decorated insights about human brutality as justification for drowning us in the evidence – such as an early scene by Udo Kier, in the most disturbing of comos, chopping out a man’s eyeballs with a spoon. Two hours and change later, you can envy that man.