Václav Marhoul (director)
11 September 2020 (released)
10 September 2020
Can there be beauty in horror, is an oft posed question that fully challenges in The Painted Bird. At close to three hours long, filmed in beautiful black and white 35mm over many years, it looks astonishing. But, and it is a big but, what it contains are some of the most harrowing scenes put on film for a very long time.
This review doesn't go into details but a description of the opening sequence will give you a good idea of what is in store.
A boy (Petr Kotlár) is chased through the snow in the dying days of World War II. He’s caught, beaten, his pet ferret pulled from him dowsed in petrol and burned alive, the fear of the boy and the agony of the animal, searing in sound and images.
The boy is living with his elderly foster-mother and when she passes away, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders through the countryside and the small villages that have been brutalized ostensibly by the Nazi occupation and descended into barbarism as a result.
He is beaten, and beaten again, buried up to his neck with birds pecking him. As he wanders the scenarios change signaled by chapter headings but it becomes a procession of cruelty and perversion with the cumulative effect on the boy leading to inevitable actions.
The first thing is that the film is far too long, but there is an element of hypnotic incredibility as you sit through the acts of violence and sadism in a sort of masochistic symbiosis with what is going on up on the screen. It’s very curious and I would suggest that a major part of that is down to the visuals – it is undeniably a beautifully composed film – and the sound design is simply astounding.
Nevertheless it begs the question of what is the point of it all? If it is about the horrors of war and its effects it goes well beyond that and borders on the gratuitous. And the Nazi’s don’t feature in it that much most of the cruelty is meted out by the indigenous population.
It works better when the question is posed what if this propensity for cruelty was latent, already in the psyche of the population as some still believe in witchcraft with medieval ways of dealing with it. The boy is seen as a pariah for the most part and treated as so.
It is based on a controversial novel by Jerzy Kosiński - that may or may not be an account of real events, so it could be a faithful blow by blow adaptation of the book (all 234 pages of it?) but as I haven’t read it I can’t comment on that. Either way with the beatings and boozing it all becomes wearing with another dirt caked faced following another as they each down another bowl of gruel. It’s miserable stuff.
The cast which includes Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård rely a lot on body movement and expressions as there’s not much in the way of dialogue. Though Kotlár as the boy is astonishing as he endures the physical and mental battering of his journey.
It’s curious that director and writer Václav Marhoul chose to film using what is known as the Interslavic language, possibly so that individual Slavic nations can’t be identified and possibly stigmatised. This adds to the intrigue of the film if not much else.
The Painted Bird is released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland and on demand from 11 September 2020