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Review: Episodic 'The Painted Bird' a brutal, harrowing, and necessary piece of cinema

Courtesy of IFC Films


Jerzy Kosinski’s horrific 1967 novel lands on the screen in Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s brutal, but necessary adaptation of “The Painted Bird.” Told in a clean and episodic structure, the film chronicles an unnamed boy as he travels Eastern Europe following the end of World War II. Marhoul’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from the sheer relentlessness of the source material, allowing us to witness the aftermath of the Holocaust through the eyes of young Petr Kotlar, playing the boy, who wanders from one tragic scenario to the next.

Tragic might be underselling the gruesome sequences on display here: the film deals with a fair amount of harsh circumstances not limited to rape, murder, bestiality, sexual abuse, incest, and mutilations (and that’s only in the first hour). But no matter how striking or painful it is to watch most of these scenes (the first five minutes alone show bullies literally dousing the boy’s dog in gasoline and then lighting it on fire) – you can sense Marhoul isn’t doing this out of spite or to shock us, but to show that some light exists at the end of the tunnel.

Though this isn’t a film I could see myself watching again, there’s a sense of engagement with how Kotlar goes through these passages. How did he end up here? Where is he going? At the start of the film, he’s in hiding with a kindred old lady named Marta, at the insistence of his parents, but when he discovers her dead one day, he is so shocked he accidentally sets the house on fire.

So begins his hike through the woods: the first stop is a village populated by Catholic zealots who see the boy as a walking devil. He befriends the strange Olga, the local witch doctor, who takes him in and, at one point, saves the kid from the plague by burying him in the ground up to his neck. The next day, he’s pushed into the river by a man who can’t stand the kids' looks and floats downstream to another chance encounter with Miller (Udo Kier).

Kier – usually a towering and spooky presences in any film – is practically terrifying in this role. This small vignette sees Miller stoked by a bout of jealousy, as the man he’s hired to help around the farm, and his wife, often exchange a glance a two, and out of rage he gouges out a pair eyeballs, leaving them on the floor for the cats to eat. Thankfully, the boy flees from this household before finding himself on the chopping block.

He then seeks refuge with a lonesome bird catcher (Lech Dyblik) who often sneaks away and tussles in the fields with a horny maiden (Jitka Cvancarova). The depth and realism brought from these two veterans says a lot about their character as they only share about 15 minutes of screen-time, yet, their grueling demises sting as though we’ve known them forever.

Again, lost and alone, the boy can’t seem to find a decent human who will take care of him. His innocence has long been shredded, aided in part by a cruel lesson taught from the seemingly good bird catcher (he paints a small bird white and releases it back to the flock which is then, subsequently, ripped to pieces - a metaphor for 2020?). But this young hero is abused by both men and women, and if not for an older priest (Harvey Keitel), he would have been slayed by the Gestapo.

Of course the tragedy doesn’t stop there. He’s sent to live with a local, beloved, farmhand (Julian Sands) and suddenly hope is restored, however, we find out the farmer is an abusive pedophile who tortures him daily until the boy comes up with a shocking plan to get rid of him. Marhoul is wise to keep this, like many others, gruesome deaths off-screen, trusting the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imaginations. But at this point in the story, you might question the will to continue down this path.

Nevertheless, the boy inadvertently finds himself in the grasp of a sex-crazed goat farmer, which, in turn, doesn’t yield pleasant results and we witness this young child’s need for love and guidance shatter in front of our very eyes. Then there’s the Red Cavalry riding into a small village, slaughtering anything in sight, capturing the boy and tying him up for the Germans as a truce offering, only to be saved by an earnest soldier, Hans, played by Stellan Skargard.

These are some tough pills to swallow, and I didn’t even mention some of the gorier details surrounding a runaway train filled with Jewish citizens, but these graphic depictions and relentless presentations of our past are essential to understanding how often history can repeat itself. It’s easy for us to watch a movie and look away at the torment on screen, yet Marhoul - and his decision to showcase the film in glistening 35mm black and white - wants us to understand that just because the war is over, the scars and trauma will last a lifetime.

There’s nothing colorful about these situations, and, really, nothing to root for other than blind optimism. Marhoul has created a wasteland that, yes, can take elements and sequences a bit too far, and shutting the TV off in response to such heinous acts would be an appropriate stance, but viewing this film in the lens of 2020 and having a gut reaction to what’s happening is still an important factor when it comes to films like these. “The Painted Bird” is a tough picture to recommend considering a daunting three hour black and white film about the fallout of the Holocaust with no big named actors doesn’t exactly scream commercial appeal, but its sense of urgency and striking poetic allegories makes it one of the most beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable films of the year.

Grade: B+

THE PAINTED BIRD debuts digitally on July 17th. Check your listings.


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