The Painted Bird
Starring Petr Kotlar, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier
The Czech Republic’s submission to the Academy Awards that was short-listed from over 90 films to one of the ten, was also one of the films that prompted walkouts during Venice and Toronto film festivals. Director Václav Marhoul’s controversial black and white film The Painted Bird is adapted from the equally controversial author Jerzy Kosinski. The 1965 novel of the same name debuted as a WWII survival story, only later to be disproved as a work of fiction. The Painted Bird is by far the most disturbing and upsetting film of 2019. It’s brutality depicts violence with children, animal abuse and rape, all involving the lead actor (who is a child). Beyond its graphic nature, The Painted Bird is controversial in it’s message that perhaps this particular child might have been better off with the Nazis.
Fearing that their young son (Kotlar) will be captured by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camps, his parents send him to live with this elderly Aunt Marta. Her death by natural causes leaves the boy homeless and wandering the dangerous countryside during uncertain times. As the meek and bright-eyed child stumbles into a nearby village, he’s accused of being cursed, a vampire. A fortune teller takes him as her property where his journey of pain and torment truly begins. Each time the boy escapes one horrible person he finds himself in the company of another. Violence has spread throughout Eastern Europe and the first person to show him any kindness in weeks is a level-headed Nazi (Skarsgård). In all the torture, rape, and abuse the boy suffers he wonders why his parents would abandon him.
If nothing else The Painted Bird will shock you into remembering what you saw, and perhaps that is the point derived from even the falsity in which it was written.
Vladimír Smutný’s black and white cinematography is quite stunning despite the imagery it’s depicting. Petr Kotlar’s performance as this young victim trying to survive his childhood in a time of war and madness is compounded by the emotion seen in his eyes. The sprinkling of recognizable actors in small parts inject life into the nearly three-hour torture film. Marhoul’s decision to deliver the film in a fictional language is partly due to Poland wanting to be disassociated with the entire project. However, it makes the story more fantastical in nature and also means actors like Keitel have their lines dubbed. Making it through The Painted Bird is an endurance test, of how much audiences can and will tolerate.
A film is only as strong as its ability to provoke the audience and make you feel something. Yet there are few films that dare to push the audience to the edge of repulsion. Do the ends justify the means? Marhoul is the one adapted the screenplay, making the choices on what elements of the book go into the film. The story is split into chapters that are titled by the names of those whom the boy encounters. At one point there are cats licking human eyeballs and even a scene of bestiality. Violence against animals is a particular theme that’s reflected from the very opening scene all the way through. If nothing else The Painted Bird will shock you into remembering what you saw, and perhaps that is the point derived from even the falsity in which it was written. Just because this isn’t the authors true story, doesn’t mean everything here couldn’t have happened to someone. It’s a film that showcases the worst of humanity and what we are capable of.
Whether you can appreciate the brutality of the film or not, The Painted Bird is original and unforgettable.