The Painted Bird

dir. Václav Marhoul

Czech Republik / Slovakia/ Ukraine 2019

The 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, shocking with its graphic literalness, serves as a canvas for one of the most controversial films that divided the audience in Venice last year. Halfway through, after the shocking scene of the rape on a young woman, almost half of the audience left the cinema. Black and white images, though often avoiding detail in the real horrors, were evocative enough to elicit unpleasant viewers. The Painted Bird can be listed in one breath with such depressing productions as Come and See by Elim Klimov or Child of War by Andrei Tarkovsky. Czech director Václav Marhoul, whose film is only the third he made in the last fifteen years, has certainly not gained new fans.

As in the book, the protagonist of The Painted Bird is a nameless boy (excellent Petr Kotlár), who, as a result of a tragedy (the elderly woman caring for him dies and her house is consumed by fire) begins to wander around the villages and towns of Eastern Europe during World War II.

What happens to a few-year-old you would not wish on your worst enemy. First, he is called the devil’s spawn, his taken under the wing of a witch-woman to be beaten and used notoriously. The boy ends up in the hands of the Nazis, but thanks to the goodness of one of them (Stellan Skarsgård), he runs away, only to end up in the hands of a jealous miller (Udo Kier), who takes out the eyes of his wife’s lover and throws them to his cat to eat. The protagonist will serve as an altar boy to a good priest (Harvey Keitel), who will put him under the care of a pedophile; meeting with a nymphomaniac who, unsatisfied, begins to mate with a goat after her husband’s death; he is a silent witness to the fate of Jews who tried to escape from the transport to a concentration camp and the attack of the Cossacks on the village, where they murder, burn and rape everyone. The final gesture of kindness is the gesture of giving the boy a revolver by a Soviet soldier (Stellan Skarsgård). But weapons are not used to spread the good message.

After viewing The Painted Bird one thing is clear: the humanity is doomed to suffering. In the eternal fight of good against evil, man shows his true face and it’s not a pretty view. Although Marhoul’s film takes place at a specific historical time, it touches upon the problem of anti-Semitism, violence during the war, loneliness, and the suffering of the most innocent, and has a very universal message.

Beautiful cinematography by Vladimir Smutny is a strange counterpoint to the horrors we see on the screen. There is a spark of hope in this. The weirdness and strength of this film lies somewhere between beauty and ugliness. Not for everyone’s taste, but definitely worth the risk.

Score: 7/10

The Painted Bird is available in cinemas in the UK and Ireland:

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