A boy of about 9 is separated from his family, moving from one adult to another, from one isolated dwelling or village to another, in a desperate two-year effort to survive. Stripped of name and family, the child experiences life as a series of horrors that include animal torture, sexual abuse, assaults and attempted assaults, murder and attempted murder—of him and others. At one point he’s buried up to his neck, helpless as large black birds peck at his head. Slowly the black-and-white film reveals that the setting, so primitive it could be the Middle Ages, is Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945, although the war is simply one of many threats to the young protagonist’s existence.
“The Painted Bird” is an indictment of racism, religion, ignorance, superstition, and intolerance, presenting them as facets of a malign culture. The boy, who wanders into farms and villages seeking shelter and sustenance, is viewed in those locales as the other, a dark-haired, darker-skinned person—perhaps a Gypsy or a “dirty Yid”—with “the eyes of black demons.” His nemeses are all blue-eyed.
He’s taken in by a witch, who starts to tutor him in her craft, and by a priest, who starts to tutor him in Catholicism. Rather than being avenues to salvation, witchcraft and religion are treated as equivalents, markers of inhumanity.
The lessons acquired by this young Job are brutal instructions in survival. He accommodates himself to those who condemn and hate him, and profit from his labor. He also learns to kill, steal, and seek revenge.
The lessons acquired by this young Job are brutal instructions in survival.
Compared to the unending assaults on him and others, the moments of kindness the boy experiences are few. The ineffectual priest (played against type by Harvey Keitel, “The Irishman,” 2019) and a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård, “Breaking the Waves,” 1996) are exceptions to the menacing and uncaring adults he encounters.
The strength of “The Painted Bird”—despite an unending series of horrific incidents in almost 3 hours—is its restraint. Its black and white palette, horizontal long shots, and wide-screen format, present an enormous landscape in which a small human must seek help.
The boy seems mute, although there are hints that he might speak and write. He plays the piano briefly early in the film, and he utters one line, his only one, to a horse. In a final scene, we learn his name, Joska, and that he can write it. Most of those around him in the countryside also have limited language, making the film a meditation not only on inhumanity but also on communication. The lack of explanatory language by any of the characters emphasizes the naivete of the boy as he begins his journey and forces the viewer to participate in imagining the missing reasoning—or lack of it.
The ravages wreaked by World War II combatants marauding through the countryside are shown quickly. Like the local peasantry, we are often ignorant of what side people are on and even who they are: German soldiers, Nazis, Russian regulars, Cossacks, villagers, Catholics, Jews? Most of the villagers seem unaffected by the warring Soviets and Germans; their lives are barely sustainable even without war.
The Holocaust enters the film indirectly. Here, too, Czech Director Václav Marhoul (“Tobruk,” 2008) requires us to apply our own understanding to this inhumane world, to come to see the boy’s experiences as the grounding for the Holocaust—to comprehend how its vile theories and actions could have taken root in these Eastern European cultures.
The acting, including several cameo appearances, is uniformly excellent. In addition to a riveting, silent performance by the young Petr Kotlár and appearances by Keitel and Skarsgård, the international cast includes Barry Pepper as the Russian sniper Mitka (also a sniper in “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998), and two horror/bad guy character actors who make indelible marks: Udo Kier as the sadistic miller (recently seen in “Bacurau,” 2019) and Julian Sands (“Warlock,” 1989) as the pedophile Garbos.
Eleven years in the making, the production is Czech Republic/Slovakian/Ukrainian because Poland refused to have anything to do with it.
“The Painted Bird” is based on Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial 1965 novel of the same name. Eleven years in the making, the production is Czech Republic/Slovakian/Ukrainian because Poland refused to have anything to do with it. The events are not, as Kosinski had claimed for decades, autobiographical. The trials of Joska may track events in the life of his friend, the filmmaker Roman Polanski, who as a child survived much of World War II on his own.
The title of both the book and the film is based on an incident: a man who makes a living capturing and selling wild birds paints one and frees it to join the flock, watching with pleasure as the flock pecks to death the unfamiliar bird, the one who looks and smells differently. The boy picks up and pets the dead bird. Even if horrific and lengthy, with no uplifting message (it’s notable for people who have walked out during a showing), “The Painted Bird,” a film about demonizing the “other,” could not be more relevant to the present moment.
Availability: Rental, Amazon, Google Play and elsewhere; see JustWatch here.
Date: 2019 (July 17 2020 US)
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Václav Marhoul
Starring: Petr Kotlár, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper
Country: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine
Language: Czech, German, Russian, Latin, and a made-up mix of Eastern European languages; Subtitles: You may need to add your own in English from your device.
Awards: 9 awards at the Czech Lions, UNICEF award at the Venice Film Festival, numerous other nominations and awards.
Runtime: 169 minutes
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