'The Painted Bird': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
An emotional three-hour punch in the stomach.

Jerzy Kosinski’s horrific novel about an unnamed boy wandering around Eastern Europe at the close of World War II is sensitively adapted for the screen in Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s grim and violent reflection on the cruelty of human nature.

Adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel of the same title, The Painted Bird receives its ideal film treatment in Vaclav Marhoul’s heart-wrenching Czech Republic-Ukraine-Slovakia co-production. Making explicit the young protagonist’s Jewish background, Marhoul’s screenplay witnesses the horrors of the Holocaust through the dark, somber eyes of newcomer Petr Kotlar, who plays a boy wandering from village to village and from one brutality to another.

As in the book, the shock effect of coldly detailed incest, bestiality and sexual abuse, beatings, killings and mutilation is furiously nonstop in a film of nearly three hours. Rather than numbing the viewer, however, the parade of evil is presented in a dismaying crescendo of horror that offers no escape, least of all into Vladimir Smutny’s rawly beautiful black-and-white 35mm cinematography, shot in a CinemaScope ratio that recalls so many classic films on World War II.

Marhoul, a film producer who graduated from FAMU, is best known as a director for Tobruk, his 2008 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which he relocated to North Africa during World War II. The Painted Bird lifts him into a different realm altogether. Its subject, length and seriousness should give it a good shot at prizes, both in Venice, where it bowed in competition, and internationally. Although name actors including Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgard and Barry Pepper make memorable appearances in the episodically structured movie, it's uncertain how such an uncompromising film will fare at the box office unless crowned by major awards.

In the very first scene, the extraordinary young Kotlar, playing the Boy, is attacked in the woods by older peasant boys and watches in horror and disbelief as they burn his dog alive. He buries the remnants near the farmhouse where he is living with a kindly old lady named Marta, who is hiding him at the request of his parents. When he finds her dead one day, he is so frightened he accidentally sets the house on fire, truly burning his bridges behind him.

Setting off through the woods, he comes to a village of ignorant Catholic peasants who superstitiously see the devil in him or, at the very least, a vampire. The witchy Olga, who acts as a local doctor, takes the little boy on as her assistant/slave and even saves him from the plague by burying him in the ground up to his neck. Then a man who doesn’t like his looks pushes him in the river and he floats downstream to his next encounter with the Miller (Kier).

To say that Kier has never been more frightening than in this role is saying a lot. The Miller's insane jealousy over the looks exchanged by his wife and his hired hand is bound to end badly, and it does — with two eyeballs rolling across the floor, licked by the cats. The Boy escapes.

The theme of sexual perversion so prominent in Kosinski’s book is introduced in the Boy’s meeting with a good-hearted old bird-catcher (Lech Dyblik) who meets regularly with a voluptuous, half-mad girl (Jitka Cvancarova) for a tumble in the fields. These professional actors bring a depth to their simple roles that makes the horror of the characters' violent deaths all the more dismaying.

And so it goes. Wherever the Boy asks for shelter, he witnesses immense cruelty born of ignorance, superstition and plain hatred of the Other. His innocence is put to death along with the animals who are wantonly killed by the peasants. It is the good bird-catcher, in fact, who teaches him a terrible lesson when he paints a small songbird white and releases it back into its flock. It is ripped to pieces because it is different from the others.

The courageous young hero is abused by both men and women. He is saved from the Gestapo by a sick old priest played by Keitel, but soon farmed out to a creepy pedophile (Sands), who tortures him relentlessly until the Boy finally liberates himself in a stomach-churner. Fortunately, Marhoul keeps the worst violence either offscreen or out of focus in the background, letting the viewer’s imagination supply the details.

This is also true of the Boy’s seduction by a lovely nymphomaniac who offers him shelter. When her aged husband (or father?) dies, she casts her lustful eyes on the prepubescent Boy. Her outrage at his inability to satisfy her needs leads to a horrible revenge scene involving a goat. Even worse, perhaps, is her cruel disregard for this child’s feelings of tenderness and love, which we watch being progressively blunted and destroyed as the saga goes on, along with his humanity and the taboo against killing. The result is obvious in the final scenes, when the war is over but the heart is cold.  

War sweeps over the film with the arrival of the Red Cavalry riding into a village, where they brutally exterminate the inhabitants for sport. The Cossacks knock the Boy out with alcohol and hog-tie him for the Germans as a present. He arrives in the German camp with a note that he’s Jewish, and the commandant asks for a volunteer to shoot him. Fortunately, the lot falls to war-weary good soldier Hans, played by Skarsgard.

Though the Boy escapes, he witnesses one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, the passage through the fields of a freight train loaded with Jews, on its way to a concentration camp. Some of them knock a hole in the side of a carriage and jump off the train, only to be mowed down by the German guards. Later, the local peasants plunder the corpses of their goods and clothes — as does the Boy, who takes the boots of a dying boy with pity in his eyes.

There are moments in the black-and-white wasteland of devastated Eastern Europe that recall Soviet masterpieces of horror like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev or Elem Klimov’s Come and See. The actor who played the teenage boy in Klimov’s film, Alexey Kravchenko, reappears here as a officer who befriends the Boy in a sequence set in a Soviet army camp. He then becomes the protégé of an eye-for-an-eye sniper played by Pepper.

The choice to shoot in black and white and in 35mm brings depth to the essential, often cheerless imagery, occasonally lit by purifying fires and snow-white blizzards. Production designer Jan Vlasak (who, like DP Smutny, worked on Kolya) brings the villages, with their thatched huts, prominent outhouses and stone churches, to life with the vividness of a fable. Music is avoided in favor of the sounds of nature, many of them threatening. Most of the dialogue was shot in an invented Slavic Esperanto, with smatterings of Czech, Russian and German.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Silver Screen

Cast: Petr Kotlar, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarova, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Aleksey Kravchenko, Barry Pepper

Director-producer: Vaclav Marhoul
Screenwriter: Vaclav Marhoul, based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel
Director of photography: Vladimir Smutny
Production designer: Jan Vlasak
Costume designer: Helena Rovna
Editor: Ludek Hudec
World sales: Celluloid Dreams

169 minutes