Who among us hasn’t wanted to watch the great Udo Kier pluck out another man’s eyeballs with a spoon in a jealous rage, shot in glorious black-and-white 35mm? I’m guessing more than a few of you have your hands raised at this moment. Well, writer/director Vàclav Marhoul has just such a moment featured in The Painted Bird, his adaptation of the controversial 1965 novel by Jerzy Kozinski (Being There) that is an elegant yet brutal visual and visceral endurance exercise, as well as one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences I’ll likely have all year.
The history of the book is worth noting for context, although it doesn’t really factor into whether I liked the film or not. The Painted Bird movie makes no claim to be based on a true story, though most of what happens to the lead character, a young boy named Joska (a devastating Petr Kotlár), feels completely real. The novel, on the other hand, was presented as semi-autobiographical by Kozinski when it first came out, and almost immediately called into question by literary types as being made up and possibly even plagiarized. In no way does that take away from the power or the impact of the story being told, and while the various forms of violence and cruelty that this boy endures may not have all happened to one person during World War II, individual events just like them likely happened to others in various combinations.
The way the story is structured is bit like a tour of the worst humankind has to offer when the very structure of society is collapsing all around us. The film opens with Joska being chased through the woods by a group of boys. They catch up to him, rip his pet animal (it’s difficult to tell the species) from his hands, douse it in something flammable, and light it on fire while it’s still alive. And that’s one of the least troubling moments of The Painted Bird, which is divided into chapters named after the people who come into contact with the boy and change his world in some way, big or small. He is taken from his parents for unknown reasons and given to an elderly relative who dies shortly after he settles in. From there, he is forced to witness or endure all manner of abuse (mental, physical, sexual) and deviance, including rape, incest and even bestiality.
At each stop on his journey, you can almost see a small piece of the boy’s soul being taken away, bit by bit, and replaced with something cold and permanently damaging. Sometimes he learns more practical things, like cooking or how to defend himself; other times, he learns that trust is not a luxury a vulnerable boy like him can afford in a world in upheaval. The final days of WWII and the Holocaust are more of a backdrop to Joska’s story, but it’s one that keeps returning. He is sometimes accused of being a gypsy or Jewish or whatever someone needs him to be in order to see him as something lesser—he learns what that feels like perhaps most of all. Joska is a mostly silent character, more the observer than participant, and certainly not a narrator. Most of the damage being done to him is conveyed through the looks on his face, which eventually turn to a cold, dark, thousand-mile stare, during which he also goes completely silent.
He encounters Nazis, Russians and others on his journey across Central and Eastern Europe, wanting to find home but never quite sure where that is. Because the book is so well known and beloved by many, the film also features a parade of famous faces as key characters in the boy’s travels, including Stellan Skarsgård as a weary German soldier tasked with killing the boy; Harvey Keitel as a kindly priest; Barry Pepper as a Russian soldier who serves as a stabilizing force to Joska near the end of the journey; Julian Sands as one of many horrible people; and the aforementioned Kier as a jealous husband. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutny’s camerawork is stunning, agonizing, and so beautifully composed that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of even the most terrible images—there are certainly moments in this nearly three-hour work where that is a necessary relief.
If only because I had no idea what fresh horror awaited me around the next corner of the meticulously crafted The Painted Bird, I never found the film laborious. There is some storytelling value to a tale of struggle and survival. The film’s title comes from a lesson learned by Joska from a bird catcher he meets who takes a bird, repaints its colors, and sends it flying back up to its bird brethren, only to be torn apart in midair for looking different. The primary education the boy gets from his travels is to blend in, to do everything in his power not to stand out.
Admittedly, I probably have a higher tolerance than some for the uglier behavior on display here, but I also think there’s a great deal in The Painted Bird that can be universally appreciated and admired. It seems like once or twice a year, there is a film that seems specially designed to test limits, and often those works divide audiences. I think it’s important such films exist, especially when they are not just shocking for the sake of being shocking. This movie is not that; it’s the story of a boy who slowly but surely loses his innocence. If we’re meant to feel hopeful that Joska endures this ordeal and may one day be a better man for it, I’m not seeing it. And that may be the film’s biggest shortcoming. Does that mean the film isn’t worth sitting through? Absolutely not. Although I didn’t have this issue, it may be too much for many to digest and come out the other side wholly satisfied or unscathed.
The film is available today on digital and VOD platforms.
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